|Nasturtium seed pods|
Although many older sources mention the striking similarity between pickled nasturtium pods and actual capers (also a pickled bud), I gave them short shrift; it seemed just one more example of a foodstuff born of scarcity while users convinced themselves it was just as good as the real thing.
Turns out, capuchin and Mediterranean capers are surprisingly similar. The color is not quite the right green (too light), the covering (ridged and grooved) is off, but the smell and — more importantly — the taste is close enough that after running an experimental batch earlier this summer, I went into the fields to gather enough buds for a few pints.
|Fence row nasturtium flowers and seed pods in San Diego|
“Monthly sown” because nasturtiums are in their entirety such useful plants and a supply throughout the growing season makes good sense. For using the plants’ “hot and aromatick” properties into winter, Evelyn recommends candying the buds as strewing herbs (that is, strewn on the floors of homes to keep down the stink in pre-modern England). Haven’t tried that. But those capers are another story.
Evelyn’s cappuchin capers (also capuchin, capuchine, capuccin, etc) are named after capucine, the French word for nasturtium. One presumes the French name for the flower comes from Capuchin friars who may have grown them as medicinal plants in their monasteries. One is not, however, a scholar of French etymology, and will leave that that shit alone for now [edit 2 Aug 2010: see Tammy's note below for confirmation of my inexpert use of French].
Adapted from The River Cottage Preserves Handbook’s recipe for Nasturium “capers”, here’s
Notes on aromatics: Poke around old receipt books and you’ll find seemingly unending recipes for nasturtiums and their buds. They do have a peppery bite and go well in salads, with steaks, etc. Historically, a broad range of aromatics have complemented that bite when preserving the seed pods: dill, tarragon, chervil, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, cloves, bay leaves, etc. I used bay leaves only, but play with the flavors that suit you.
5 tsp salt
7 oz nasturtium seed pods
2 bay leaves (see "Notes on aromatics" below)
2.5 cup white/rice wine vinegar
Add the salt to 2.5 cups distilled or bottled water. Stir to dissolve. Rinse and drain the seed pods, then add them to the brine. Allow to stand 24 hours at room temperature.
Drain and dry the pods well. Pack into sterilized small jars, add the bay leaves (and/or other aromatics, if using). Leave about half an inch of headroom, then top with vinegar. Seal with vinegar-proof lids and leave in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks.
Strew the “capers” in salads, use them in tartar sauce, make compound butters, season tapenade with them. They’re versatile, they’re cheap, and they’re a bit of the 17th century you can bring to your own table as easy as pie. Or, rather, pye.
Goes well with:
- Evelyn, John (1699) Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Prospect Books out of the UK has issued a handsome printing edited by Christopher Driver and with a forward by Tom Jaine — Powell’s in Portland carries it. (Prospect also released C. Anne Wilson’s laudable history of distillation, Water of Life).
- My take on The River Cottage Preserves Handbook.