The word 'caper' is generally used to denote the salted or pickled buds of the caper plant (Capparis spinosa). Capers are mainly used for seasoning and garnishing, especially in Mediterranean cuisine. They have a sharp, piquant and salty taste, with a pungent aroma. The fruits of the caper plant are called caper berries that are pickled along with the stems. These berries taste like capers, but have a stronger or milder taste. These pickled berries are also used for garnishing and cooking. You may replace capers with caper berries in some recipes, but not vice versa.
It is believed that, the caper plant was used for medicinal purposes by ancient Greeks and Romans. Ancient Greeks used the roots and shoots of the plant for making herbal tea, to treat rheumatism. Capers were also used as a carminative (medication that prevents formation of gas in the alimentary tract). The plant has been mentioned in the Holy Bible too. Though it is said that the plant originated from Central Asia, some studies link it to the Island of Cyprus, where caper plants are found in abundance.
The plant Capparis spinosa, is a perennial bush, with spines on the stem and pinkish-white flowers. The leaves are fleshy and almost round in shape. The plant has many branches, and the fragrant flowers have four sepals, violet stamens and four petals. It is found abundantly along the Mediterranean coastline. The plant grows wild, and is seen clinging to rocks, mountains and walls. Nowadays, it is cultivated commercially in countries, like France, Spain, Italy, Algeria, Iran, Cyprus, and Greece.
The fruits of the caper plant are green and oblong. A caper berry is slightly larger than a table grape, and bears a strong caper flavor. Like the buds, the fruits are also salted and pickled. Brined caper berries can be eaten like olives and pickles. They can replace olives in some recipes. If your recipe requires heating or cooking, it is always better to use the berries rather than capers, because the latter lose some flavor, after cooking.
Sometimes, pickled caper berries release an unpleasant pungent smell. This is due to the use of unripe fruits for pickling. Unripe berries produce a high concentration of mustard oil, which is responsible for the pungent smell. According to Ayurvedic texts, these berries are useful for relieving the symptoms of rheumatism and flatulence, and for stimulating the liver.
Caper berries are not as popular as capers. Currently, they are mainly produced in Spain and in some parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.