Australian caper farmers selling hard-won harvest to restaurants, home cooks for up to $50 per 250 grams

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A wide-brimmed hat, knee pads and plenty of tea breaks are essential for Heidi Setchell while picking caper buds destined for plates in some of Australia’s high-end restaurants.

For more than a decade, she and her husband Dave have been growing capers, along with jujubes and dates, on their organic farm in Loxton, about 250 kilometers from the South Australian city of Adelaide.

But in recent years, the Setchells have had to work harder to meet the demand for the products of high-end restaurateurs.

While the finished product looks effortless and tasty on the plate, it’s a different story on the block.

Work hard to harvest

The harvest season for caper buds is in late spring and early summer, before they bloom into flowers and then into caperberries.

It is best to break off the pea-sized fruits of meter-high shrubs in the morning, before the sun and the UV index is high.

Dave Setchell says his wife Heidi is a faster caper picker because she is ambidextrous.(
ABC news: Eliza Berlage

After a few hours of work, the two-liter blue ice bucket, which hangs from a lanyard around Mrs. Setchell’s neck, is slowly filled with the fruits of her intensive labor, which can fetch as much as $130 per kilo.

“On a good day I can gain almost half a kilo in an hour, but in that time it’s usually about 350 grams,” she said.

“We tend to pick the buds that are about 5 to 8 millimeters in diameter.

“If you go for real small capers, they are also very popular with chefs, but they are less than five millimeters in size and they take an extremely long time to pick.”

Dave, a middle-aged, light-skinned man in a high-vis jacket and cap, carries a lanyard with an ice bucket of capers

Dave Setchell says they harvest caper buds in late spring, and caper berries in the new year.(
ABC news: Eliza Berlage

Despite demand exceeding supply, Setchell said scaling up is not a viable option.

“We’ve had a tendency to pay people to pick caper buds and you literally lose money if you go that route,” he said.

“It’s really just a matter of how many caper buds we can pick ourselves… before it’s worth it.

“We never run out of supplies, that’s for sure.”

A close-up of a handful of small bright green caper buds held by Heidi, who has fair skin.

The Setchells say they pick capers mainly based on customer demand.(Supplied: black sheep products)

Cooking with capers

So what is it about capers that makes them so sought after?

Alex Prichard, culinary director of Iceberg’s Dining Room and Bar in Sydney, said they worked so well in cooking because they were versatile and unique and helped balance the flavors of dishes.

a white plate with trout covered with olive oil and capers.

Ananda Organic capers on iceberg crudo dish for coral trout.(Delivered: icebergs)

“The great thing about the subtle flavors of capers is that they translate into so many different dishes,” he said.

A caper convert himself, Mr Pichard said the difference between imported and fresh Australian capers was stark.

He believes if more consumers had access to Australian capers they would be popular.

“People have a preconceived idea of ​​what the flavor profile of a caper should be,” he said.

“But when they try these (Australian capers) in our restaurant, they say, ‘Wow, I’m not used to that’.”

Close up of green capers covered with salt

Liz Crowley leaves the stems on her capers to distinguish themselves in the marketplace, and chefs leave them on.(Supplied: Ananda Organic)

Catering for chefs

It’s this curiosity and question that led a Naracoorte couple to make the switch from garlic to capers, but they never expected that six years later they would be turning down requests from top chefs.

Liz, wearing a pink shirt, holds a small dog, a boy, in her caper garden.

Liz with her helper Boy, who keeps her company during the harvest.(ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

Liz Crowley and her husband Rob supply capers to high-end restaurants, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, but also sell a limited number to home chefs.

“Unfortunately we can’t keep up, we have to knock back quite a few chefs,” she said.

“I really enjoy being able to sell to the public. I keep a small amount available, but we just don’t have enough to sell a lot of it.”

Although demand continues to challenge the flock, the plant’s sustainability and limited water supply make it a good option for future farming conditions.

Liz holds out a spoon full of pickled capers.

Liz Crowley stops selling capers every year.(ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

Brutal reality of harvesting

Adelaide horticulturist Brian Noone has been operating a wholesale caper plant business for almost three decades.

In 2002, he traveled to Italy, Spain and Morocco on a Churchill grant to study the ancient food, which he said showed the brutal reality of harvesting this niche ingredient.

“The hands of the women and children who pick them are torn to pieces,” Noone said.

“More than 50 percent is still picked from the wild, so people have to walk a kilometer to pick a kilo.”

A close-up of a red and black spotted ladybug on a caper bud.

Brian Noone has cloned a thornless caper bush, which is mainly used in Australia.(
ABC news: Eliza Berlage

Australian-grown capers can cost around $50 for 250 grams, while a kilo of imported capers can cost two to three times less.

Mr Noone said high labor costs in Australia made it difficult to compete with imports, but technology could provide a future solution.

Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered every Friday.

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