AS far as retirement properties go, Barry Nelson and Helen Jones’ patch of land in the SA Riverland probably wasn’t everyone’s idea of a tree change.
Hot, arid and covered in mallee scrub, the four-hectare property 10km from Berri was at the very least a challenging prospect.
But rather than dwell on what they couldn’t do with it, the couple focused on what they could.
The answer was 12 years after planting their first bushes, they are supplying 80-90 per cent of the country’s top restaurants and winning medals and accolades galore, those flavoursome flower buds that grace many a savoury dish.
Both Riverlanders, Barry worked for the SA government as a hydrologist up to his retirement, while Helen was a teacher for many years. They bought the property in the 1980s.
“When we started to talk about retirement and what we were going to do, the foodie world was starting to take off,” Barry said.
“Our plan was to get into something but we had no idea what. Helen was a bit of a foodie - I wasn't that much - and we sort of said ‘OK, we're going to grow something, we've got mallee scrub, not much water.
“So we wrote down a list of criteria: 48-degree summers, -5 degree winter days, not much water, wasn't going to cost much to set up, high value on a small area, something we could put our own touch to."
Inspiration came after a visit to an open day at caper grower's downriver.
Eighty or 90 people were there, Barry said, but most went home when they found the buds had to be picked by hand.
“That's when I started to get interested because it was a classic demonstration of there’s never going to be a glut on the market.
“That’s because people don't want to hand pick any more; if they can't do it from their air-conditioned tractor cab, they're not interested. “
At the same time, farmers markets and cooking shows were really starting to take off – programs like The Cook and The Chef and so on.
So in they went, buying 50 field-pollinated plants, of which about 20 were productive.
“We did a hell of a lot of research,” Barry said. “Immediately I began experimenting with pickling our first crop. For the first three years all we did was experiment.”
This included dry-salt pickling, which Barry says is quite an unusual technique.
“We had to pick a salt that we liked - salt ain’t all the same - and because of my previous job, I knew all the groundwater salt producers in the Murray-Darling Basin, which helped."
Persistence paid off when finally Barry put the capers on the market.
That year Mark McNamara from the Barossa Valley was named number one chef in SA for his then restaurant Appelation.
“So I bit the bullet, quaking in my boots, made an appointment and went down and gave him a taste. He said they were the best he’d ever had and wanted to use them. So we were straight into the top restaurant in the state.”
Word spread and before long the likes of George Calombaris, Matt Moran and Heston Blumenthal were using his products, especially cape caper leaves.
"George has put some with lamb," Barry said."Matt does a steak tartare with them. A lot of chefs use them with fish. Heston Blumenthal uses them with octopus."
For Barry, capers truly are the plant that keeps on giving.
"Every long-arching cane, every leaf axle will have a flower bud growing in it. That's what the caper is - an unopened flower bud. And the highest priced are the smallest, of course. But if we don't pick them and go away for a week, or miss them while they’re picking, they get pollinated and turn into the caperberry."
"So we’ve got a huge market for those as well."
"And then at the end of the season we go through and pick the leaves, copying the Turks and Greeks and selling them too.”
And all of this with very little retail. As Barry says: “It’s a lot easier packaging in buckets than filling up 70 gram jars.”
While it’s not all plain sailing - the caper white butterfly can be a menace – Barry said growing capers is easier compared to other crops, making it a good option for enterprising retirees to consider.
But he stresses you must do your homework – for example, making sure you have the right climate (a distance of just a hundred kilometres can make a difference) and Ph level in your soil.
Today he looks back with satisfaction. "At the time everybody thought we were bonkers. Now they think we were geniuses because we got in so early."
Kolophon Capers (Barry says the name is Old Greek for "finishing touch") welcomes visitors (October-March inclusive), but bookings are essential. To visit, call (08) 8588-2737.
Details - kolophoncapers.com.au