It all started innocently enough while picking asparagus with the class last week when one of the cheeky class members made a comment about ‘which asparagus was the best?’ Big or small? Thick or thin? Whenever the question of best is breached I get a feeling of oh oh here we go again...
What’s the best coffee? the best burger? Which restaurants do you think are the best?
Are we so obsessed by possibly missing out on the latest highly spun food trend that we can ignore a delightful spring morning in the garden? Not I. I tried to politely answer and deflect the team to the picking and tasting of the asparagus, when the same question reverberated again with the group amongst the artichokes and became the natural segue into the broad bean patch. So we tasted and observed and slowly began to realise how fine vegetables can taste eaten in the garden. A cloud had lifted.
Then a car came up the drive at the end of the class and I remembered that Grant and Helena Cooper were coming up today to deliver some of their great Capers and Caperberries from Paracombe South Australia and the size thing reared its head again. Grant had asked before coming what size I preferred for his capers and I agreed with him that the tiny ones that are sometimes called birdshot or Lilliput capers were overrated and that I preferred them a little bigger for flavour.
Caper berries have also been allocated to the ‘been there done’ that section of the advanced foodies list just under the semi dried tomatoes due to some very ordinary pickling of the imported ones. But Coopers Caperberries are really delightful they are the fruit formed on the buds that have flowered and been pollinated. Picking capers is not for the impatient and inevitably some buds get the bees.
I had also mentioned to Grant a few months ago that I found a bottle of really tasty Pickled Caper Leaves from Cyprus at the bizarre supermarket in the Footscray market and suggested that it might be a good way to use more of the plant. He had been busy and brought a couple of jars of pickled baby shoots that were really good but different from the Cypriot ones. The imported ones had spikes on the stalks and were big and coarse but when made into a purée were a delightful addition to a dressing and we also began to make cheese with it. I was intrigued by the thorns and discovered that there are two basic types of caper bushes in Europe. The “Nocella”, the most diffuse and valuable and the “Spinoso di Salina” a mediocre quality species, difficult to collect because of the presence of spiky thorns. Grant and Helena’s pickles were from the small shoots no spikes and looked very enticing and photogenic and I am sure will become the ‘garnish du jour’ if properly presented to the in-crowd, but I asked him to also pickle the larger coarser leaves for me this year as the Cypriot ones were a lot more capery. He was delighted as now all the pruning will have a use.
We finished the day in the garden looking at the bed of garlic about to be harvested. It’s a rocambole or hard neck variety that has a big and a small end with a gooseneck middle all very edible. From the head of garlic we want big cloves for ease of cleaning but also plenty of pungent flavour which this variety will deliver in spades. The young hard neck or flower stalk is an excellent way of delivering the active flavour ingredient the pungent Allicin. It tastes and looks like a giant garlic chive but the often neglected seed head is what I am waiting for to reach maturity. Each immature flowerhead will contain dozens of tiny kernels of garlic bliss that could/would command eye-watering prices from the micromanic urban provedores.
I think the digital macro lens has a lot answer for our current obsession with tiny ingredients. There is also a fashion for acceptable anorexic dining on tiny bite sized bits that invite microherbs and birdshot. I once ate a dish that was touted as having 6 alliums in it but all I could taste in the one mouthful of the tiny salad was raw onion...
The top photo is of a salad of Cooper's Capers, buds and berries with tiny shoots, embryonic artichokes, fennel flowers and rocambole garlic pearls Total weight 9grams including our own Arbequina olive oil dressing.
Below is a more sobering perspective.
Grant and Helena Cooper
104 Pitt Road
Paracombe SA 5132
Telephone (08) 8380 5388
Needless to say I have
No pecuniary interest at all
They have enough for about 10 regular customers each year get into it.