In Sicily they pronounce it differently: instead of placing the accent on the second ‘cous’, like French-speaking Arabs (‘couscoùs’), in true Sicilian fashion they place it on the first (‘coùscous’).
The association of Sicily and couscous may be new to some, but there is in fact a strong link between the two, especially in the province of Trapani, one of the ‘homes’ of couscous, where the San Vito Lo Capo Cous Cous Fest will present packed program of events between September 25-29 (www.sanvitocouscous.com).
As a matter of fact, couscous is the fourth most widely consumed food in the world, which means that about two billion people regularly sit down to this pleasant dish, served with meat, fish, vegetables – or even honey.
It is made simply from semolina and water. Women make it by hand with almost balletic gestures: a hand caresses the mixture likes a child’s hair, ruffling and smoothing at the same time. They move their bodies too, not only their hands, with involuntarily sensual movements; seen from behind, they seem to sway to a rhythm only their ears can hear.
Couscous must be handled gently, otherwise it will all stick together in one hard, unusable lump. You must stroke it with moist fingers that run through the mixture, separating it into small bits – the ‘couscous’.
Today most people use the industrially produced, ready-made version of couscous. It is unanimously declared to be excellent and is very convenient to keep ready in a packet in the cupboard. It only takes a moment to prepare (and not only with philologically correct methods – ie. the couscous steamer). If you want to make a simple couscous dish, sauté vegetables in a frying pan and add a little water, which will be enough to cook the couscous and make a delicious meal. This is not for fundamentalists, but there is a contradiction in terms between strict rules and couscous, which is a universal dish. We owe it to the Arabs, of course, but it is such a versatile food, that goes well with so many others, that there are endless variations of it all over the world.
There is even Jewish couscous – a coup de théâtre for an Arab dish. The difference is in the cooking method: the Arabs put all the ingredients in the couscous steamer together: meat, vegetables, sauce. The Jews, on the other hand, cook the couscous and then eat it like rice, adding it to the foods with which it is to be served. In Rome (the spiritual home of Christianity, but also the home of the largest and oldest Jewish community in Italy) couscous is served with ‘Jewish-style’ artichokes. In Tunisia Jews eat Sabbath-day couscous fried with spinach, which turns it black: in times past it was left to stew overnight before the Sabbath and eaten on the day in which it was forbidden by Jewish Law to light the fire.
The programme of events for the Cous Cous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo will include a chef’s contest and this year Israeli and Palestinian cooks will compete with others from Algeria, Ivory Coast, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Italy.
It is certainly rather limiting to call couscous an ‘Arab’ dish, and it is also inaccurate: throughout the Persian Gulf (apart from Lebanon, where tabbouleh is a close relative) it is an exotic food that is rarely eaten. Perhaps it is more accurate to call it a Mediterranean dish, from an area where people love good food and company: ask an Arab, a Jew, a Frenchman or a Sicilian ‘how do you eat couscous?’ and the answer will always be the same: ‘In anyway you like, but not on your own’.
San Vito Lo Capo – recommended by Franco Saccà
Leader of the Slow Food Trapani convivium
Hotel Capo San Vito
Via San Vito 1
Three stars. 36 rooms
Prices: single 220,000 lire, double 300,000 lire, half board.
A comfortable hotel in a wonderful seaside location. The hotel leads directly on to the beach but is also in the city center.
Via Margherita 91
Tel. 0923 974240
High two stars. 17 rooms
Prices: 70,000 lire breakfast only, 90,000 per person half board
A family-run hotel a short distance from the sea. The restaurant is the feather in the hotel’s cap.
Tel. 0923 972525
High two stars. 9 rooms
Prices: single 120,000, double 240,000 lire half board
A family-run hotel in a beautiful inlet on the sea, with a breathtaking view. Go to the restaurant anyway, which is the realm of Marilù Terrasi, a renowned expert on couscous.
Ristorante Da Alfredo
Tel. 0923 972366
Price: 50-60,000 lire excluding wine
Rightly the most famous restaurant in San Vito. Alfredo and his family will delight you with their specialties, especially homemade pasta. The second courses include fresh fish cooked in various ways, and unforgettable shellfish dishes.
Ristorante Sapori di Sicilia
Via Savoia 3
Tel. 0923 621090
Price: 50,000 lire excluding wine
If you like Sicilian fish dishes, this recently refurbished restaurant is the right choice – it will soon become your favorite docking place.
Gioielleria Mimì Giaramita
Via Savoia 81
San Vito Lo Capo is famous for coral-work jewelry and here you’ll be spoilt for choice.
If you’re keen on ceramics, San Vito has a few surprises in store, and these are two places not to be missed.
Cinzia Scaffidi is editor of the Slowfood site www.slowfood.it