Sunday, 28 April 2013

Dangerous Capers

Last weekend we decided to go caper-gathering. Capers are one of my favourite things to add to salad to give it a special zing. Here in Tilos, as in many Aegean islands, it's not just the little round buds and berries but also the young stalks and leaves that are pickled, which makes sense as they're just as succulent and tasty (not to mention easier to eat). 

Late April is the time to pick them, after the rains of spring. Kapari (Capparis spinosa) grows mostly on cliffs overlooking the sea. The trick is to find a place where they haven't already been picked by someone else, or eaten by hungry goats. Goats are rather more nimble at scrambling down cliff-faces than humans, and cliffs here can crumble away as you make your way up or down. 

Every now and then I'd spot a huge bush of bright green leaves halfway down an impossibly steep cliff, and think of Shakespeare's samphire-gatherers on the cliffs of Dover ('how fearful and dizzy 'tis... dreadful trade!'). After a few scratches, I played it safe. I couldn't bear to watch Stelios reaching just a teeny bit further... 'I came here to gather kapari,' he grinned, 'so I'm going to gather kapari!' Stubborn?


We came home with a few jars' worth. Then later this week, while walking the dog, I found another cache and we gathered some more. We left them in water for five days, changing the water twice a day, which removes bitterness. The smell that comes off them as you change the water is distinctive, not unpleasant. At first we soaked them in tap water, but then changed to using sea water.

Then we put them in old honey jars with a mix of brine and vinegar, and after a few days they turn a duller shade of green and are ready to eat. We tasted them yesterday and they're delicious: our own Tilos capers. Not sure how long they will last in our house... 

Capers have been used in Aegean kitchens since ancient times. I read that in Santorini they're stewed with tomatoes and onions and spooned over fava or yellow split-pea puree, which sounds heavenly. And there's also a Cycladic caper salad where they're combined with potatoes, or you can eat them with fish. But now that we're picking onions, lettuce, rocket and carrots from our garden, for now this lazy cook will be putting them in the salad. 

Well, it's about time to go outside and take Lisa the pup for a stroll. Walking with Lisa these days is giving me a new appreciation for the number of dead lizards to be found at the roadside - though we also have an abundance of live ones, including this fellow who graced our bathroom window.

We'll go to feed the chickens, and probably along the way we'll see some goats with their youngsters. Lisa's about the same size as a baby goat right now. The other day a few big elder goats with beards and horns gathered around and took a good look at her, before turning away, as if to say, 'Naah, not one of ours...' 

Talking of goats, this time of year is also when the islanders make the fresh mizithra cheese. I am a huge fan of cheese, but this has more of a set-yoghurt texture and is, well, extremely goaty. It's an acquired taste, and I haven't yet had time to acquire it, as Stelios eats the whole half-kilo on its own in two days flat, with a spoon. I could have taken a picture at the halfway point but it wasn't pretty. It's the one time when I am delighted for him to smoke a cigarette after eating before he comes close.

Easter-flowering plant outside the Tilos Elephant Museum in Megalo Horio: smells like jasmine

This morning is a special one, as two years ago it was the first morning of my new life in Tilos. So I may have to celebrate with a swim. I will take the precaution of putting my shoes and clothes into my bag so Lisa doesn't take them away somewhere. A lovely acquaintance who visits Tilos every year wrote me a letter recently with some 'words of warning' - oh dear, I thought, what? 

She had read that Lisa was friends with the floppy-eared dog from Livadia, and worried our pup might pick up some bad habits from him. Apparently on more than one occasion old Floppy Ears pinched items of clothing from people when they went for a swim, and went hurtling off down the sea front with whatever he found - for which behaviour he earned the name 'The Underpant Dog'. 

For now there's no-one on our nearby beaches, but if any socks go missing this summer, well, you have been warned...


  1. Love Kapari, old Irini who lives in a house in the narrow lane out of Livadia on the way to Lethra usually has jars of kapari outside her home and always asks me taste them when i'm heading out, they are so delicious.If she runs out of them i now know where to acquire some!!

  2. Yes, I used to buy capers from her! Not sure if ours will be as good, but fingers crossed.

  3. Spend my entire Sunday reading you blog posts (loving it)and ended up buying you book Falling in honey on Kindle store. The rainy weather in Norway at the moment is a great opportunity to daydream about my favorite country.

    1. Thank you so much! Sorry you have rainy weather there. We've had freakishly hot sunshine for the last week or so - it feels like 30 degrees out there today! Glad the blog is a little window on Greece for you...

  4. Foraging for capers – how devine! I stumbled across your book ‘Falling in Honey’ in my small local library in Waiuku, New Zealand (yes, it’s in library’s here already!). What a fabulous and inspiring read, and testament to where a positive outlook and a whole lot of courage can lead you. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Greece a number of times and your stories of Tilos took me back to a summer spent in the Greek Islands, it’s now top of my list when I hopefully get back over there one day. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    1. This is the real pleasure of writing a book and a blog - opening up my email in the morning and finding a message like this. Amazing that my little book has made it to Waiuku, New Zealand, and that you picked it up and found it a good read. Please tell all your friends! And I hope you'll come to Tilos one day... and if you do, please come and say hello.