The Ballobar caper has thorns. It grows in arid and semi-arid areas, and is harvested exclusively by hand over a short period of time.
At Terra Madre we discover another European Slow Food Presidium appreciated by restaurateurs but not yet by the average consumer.
These capers are not considered greatly attractive by farmers young and old, so much so that the only ones growing and caring for these caper bushes are Antonia and Concha de Molina, coordinators of the Ballobar Caper Presidium.
“This year was difficult to manage, because there was a lot of uncertainty in general, even though the caper harvest wasn’t affected by Covid-19; the weather, on the other hand, has had a great impact. It has meant that the caper bushes flowered earlier than usual and when we went to pick them they were quite mature, so we weren’t able to harvest as much we’d have liked, as it rained a lot.” Antonia and Concha’s words are surprising, given that production takes place in an arid or semi-arid climate of the Iberian hinterland.
The capers grow wild in rocky, calcareous terrain and harvesting it is not always easy: “The greatest difficulty is the harvest, which happens over a short time period and is quite hard.” Indeed, the harvest is is done completely by hand.
Nonetheless, Antonia and Concha are not down on their luck: “In terms of commerce, the Ballobar caper is lucky, let’s put it that way. It’s recognized for its quality in the world of haute cuisine. The hard word that remains to be done is to increase appreciation for these capers among the average consumer, who generally don’t know about them. It’s a great challenge, one of taste education. But when someone who doesn’t know them tries them for the first time they become a regular customer and grow to love them. Our experience teaches us that we need to promote them better, their sensory profile and their uses in the kitchen.”
No rose without thorns, and in Ballobar the capers too!
In the town of Ballobar, in the autonomous community of Aragon, the caper harvest is an ancient tradition. It probably started during the period of Muslim rule. The capers brought international fame to this town on the edge of the Monegros, the largest desert in Europe. It’s said that these capers were traded with the Tsars of Russia in exchange for caviar.
Beginning in the 1980s, the commercial harvest slowed to a stop: the competition from capers from Andalusia and North Africa, where there’s an intensive cultivation, was too great for the Ballobar variety. And so these thorned Aragonese capers survived solely for domestic consumption.
Recently, however precisely for their particular nature, these wild capers have once again become sought-after. It’s a unique productio, closely linked to this land: the plants grow wild in rocky, south-facing terrain, in a tiny strip of land surrounding the town.
The bulbs of the Ballobar caper are harvested before they flower (alcaparra) and the fruit thereafter (alcaparròn). Both are conserved in brine and they’re a gastronomic delight, characterized by their tenderness and fragrance.
As Antonia and Concha put it, “Processing the capers is a responsibility. It’s a widely-recognized product that must managed well if you want to get an excellent final product from it. We feel that our work contributes to restoring value to our land. We’re doing it by promoting the culture of this food which has almost disppeared.”
Are the younger generations interested in getting involved? The response isn’t positive. “Right now we don’t anyone who’s interested, and it’s a shame.” It’s just Antonio and Concha who work to keep these capers alive, as well as around 20 other women from the town who work with them during the harvest period, working from dawn till dusk.
The goals of the Presidium are multiple: to help the producers find an effective way to domesticate and cultivate these capers. Up to now this has proved impossible. To do justice to the uniqueness of this plant, a project is underway to build a dedicated museum. Promoting this crop means developing an alternative economy to traditional agriculutre, which is barely sustainable in this arid land.
Regarding their plans for the future, Antonia and Concha know what direction they’d like to take: “At the moment the price, while it reflects the effort required to deliver, is a stumbling block for consumers. Those who don’t know these capers think they’re too expensive. In the future we’d like to restart studies and find a way to increase the number of plants. That way we can protect them in areas where they can continue to grow. We think this is the right to moment to finish a job started years ago and never brought to a conclusion because of a lack of funds. So we really need the support of Slow Food and Terra Madre to put pressure on the government of Aragon on this issue!”
by Michela Lenta, firstname.lastname@example.org