Capers in salt

Cosenza, Italy And The Hunt For Capers

Every year since I can remember, I’ve had a job to do for my Mother and that is to find her capers at Christmas time so she could keep with our Italian family tradition of making caper salad on Christmas Eve. Not just any capers, but capers that are packed in salt and sold in bulk by the lb. This is not an easy task considering the large majority of capers are sold in jars and soaked in vinegar brine.

She used to purchase them in Cincinnati, until they stopped selling them. Then she was able to find them in New York, until they stopped selling them. This is where I came in and my newly acquired address in New Orleans back in the early 90’s. I was able to find them in the Central Grocery market in the French Quarter. Then, the day came where they stopped selling them. Ever since then, I have been on an endless ‘hunt for capers’.

I found them in Los Angeles in recent years, so our Christmas’ were saved, but now I no longer live in Los Angeles. The hunt has since gone to an international level and every time I am in Italy, I have a job to do.

You see, there is an old family recipe that has been passed down from my great-grandmother who was from Cosenza, Italy. It is a recipe for caper salad and it is the most fabulously addictive thing you could ever eat (that is if you are a vinegar addict like me and the rest of my family).

As (my Mom’s) luck would have it, I planned a trip to Perugia, Italy last December and as I always do, I made it a priority to pick up some capers.

I started the hunt in Perugia where I was staying about a 2 hours drive North from Rome. I looked everywhere and searched high and low. No capers anywhere. I was told that I won’t find them in the North and that I would have to head South to get them.

“Ah hah!”, I thought. They are in Rome. On my last visit to Rome in September, I found them. I know exactly where I can get them, but I had no plans of traveling to Rome.

Enter Cosenza in the Southern most part of Italy in the Calabria region. I have been wanting to visit Cosenza for the last couple of years and every time I am in Italy I am dissuaded to go by locals trying to convince me it’s ugly and dangerous. So, I convinced my friend in Perugia to escort me down to Cosenza not only to visit the town where my ancestors were from, but also to get capers. If I couldn’t find them in Cosenza, then I wouldn’t find them anywhere. I mean, this is where the recipe originated.

It was a long and arduous journey. We had to drive from Perugia to Orte, take a train from Orte to Rome (I offered to hop off and get them there, but my friend wouldn’t have it), change trains in Rome, head to Naples, rent a car (which is not an easy task in Naples) and drive down to Cosenza through the mountains and through rain and snow (might I add, I had no idea that the South of Italy got this much snow. There was snow everywhere!).

The snow-covered mountains headed towards Cosenza

We arrived in the evening leaving us no time to hunt for capers. It would have to wait until morning (and by the way, Cosenza is far from ugly. I found it to be very charming along with the people).

In the town of Cosenza

Arriving in Cosenza at night

Cosenza is a small town, so options for grocery marts are limited. There was one large chain grocery store in the center and one small specialty store. Bingo, jackpot and bullseye! I found them in both and I bought out both store’s supply! All 20 lbs of them! Now, how do I get them back to the States in my luggage?

My poor friend had the job of lugging the capers onto the train

Luckily, I had just been granted Silver Medallion status on Delta and with that status I was allowed 2 checked bags at 70 lbs each! That’s 140 lbs of baggage I can check in. I took swift advantage of this opportunity and stocked up on 8 bottles of wine, 3 liters of olive oil and various pastas and truffles for Christmas gifts.

Now, my Mom should be set for a while and since the hunt is getting more and more tiresome I decided to do a little research online. As luck would have it, now with the internet, you can order the capers online and have them delivered right to your door. So, I don’t have to make anymore trips around the world hunting for capers, but it has been so long since I have been doing it, it’s actually more fun this way.

In the meantime, if my Mom happens to run out of the stockpile she has been hoarding, there is always the internet. And whenever I am in the Mediterranean, I will gladly hunt for capers.

It’s actually kind of fun to go into an Italian grocery store and tell them my Italian mother is in the States and has to have large quantities of this delicacy only found in the land of her ancestry. It makes me feel, if only for a minute, that I belong.

Buy capers in salt in bulk online here:
Capers in Salt – 1 jar, 2.2 lbs

2 Responses to “Cosenza, Italy And The Hunt For Capers”
  1. Rosemary says:

    I love this post! Any chance you’d share the caper salad recipe? I, too, have a relative (in my case, a great grandfather) who was from the Cosenza area (Spezzano della Silla) and, though there haven’t been recipes handed down from his family, I am fascinated with the cuisine of that area. For the last several years, I have looked there for inspiration for Christmas Eve dinner.

  2. The capers are soaking as I write this in preparation for Christmas Eve! Our entire Christmas Eve dinner has been passed down from my great grandmother from Cosenza. She would spend two weeks preparing the Christmas Eve feast for her 12 children and extended family. These are the few items that my Mom took from that tradition and makes every year: Baccala salad, caper salad, spaghetti in oil and garlic, fried smelt, sausages in tomato sauce, marinated shrimps and struffoli. We have had this same meal every year on Christmas Eve my entire life.

    Grandma Vitello’s Caper Salad

    The ingredients:

    2 lbs of capers preserved in salt
    Olive oil to coat
    Red wine vinegar (approximately) 2 oz
    5 or 6 garlic cloves crushed (more or less depending on your preference for garlic. We like a lot!)
    1 can of anchovies in olive oil and salt
    Oil cured olives (as many as you like)

    Everything is prepared to taste. We just throw everything in and taste as we go along. The measurements are not exact every time. We like it heavy on the vinegar.

    Clean the capers of all salt and soak in a bowl of water for 24 hours while changing the water periodically. The capers should be void of the majority, if not all, of the salt when finished soaking.

    Add olives, garlic, and the whole can of anchovies (including the oil it’s soaked in). Coat with olive oil and vinegar. Mix with spoon.

    Serve with Italian bread. I like the bread toasted. My Mom prefers it fresh.

    When eating, always eat a fork full of capers first and then take a bite of the bread. For some reason, if you put the capers directly on the bread and then bite, it just doesn’t have the same taste.


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