The “official thesis” is that couscous arrived in Sicily in the Middle Ages, with the Arab domination. But if this is true, why is it not present in the gastronomic tradition of Palermo, which was the magnificent capital of the Arab kingdom, a beautiful city competing with Cairo and Cordoba?
This is the question that Paolo Salerno asked himself. A tireless organizer of events and passionate promoter and researcher of gastronomic culture, he has gone through all the possible sources, and his theory is that the preparation of couscous actually was learned, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by Trapani fishermen who cast their nets off the Maghreb coasts. They thus brought this dish to Trapani, and to the cities and islands on the west coast, accompanying it with the poorest fish, which they kept for themselves as it was unsuitable for sale.
All this, and much more, he told me in Trapani, while he introduced me to some of the chefs who have subscribed his Code of Ethics, a sort of regulation that binds the signatories to prepare couscous with all the trimmings, kneading the semolina by hand, cooking it properly in the traditional cuscussera, and then letting it rest for as long as necessary. This is the only way to obtain the real cùscusu, as this dish correctly should be called. The chefs who have adhered to the code of ethics are a dozen, here are some of them (the complete list is here).
Nicola Bandi, Il Moro Restaurant
He had started his studies at the Hospitality Institute, then the “call of the kitchen” became irresistible and he gave up everything to devote himself to pots and stoves. His dishes are the result of the refined alchemy between family recipes, products of excellence, and personal research, and his elder brother Enzo, maitre and sommelier, takes care of getting everything to the table in the best possible way.
The cùscusu served here is an expression of the two brothers’ bond with tradition and territory, and this is why they use special semolina resulting from the skillful mixture of durum wheat with the rare Bidì wheat, one of the ancient Sicilian grains. It must be said, however, that Nicola allows himself a few small deviations from the rule. His cùscusu, in fact, although prepared following all the prescriptions, arrives at the table with a very contemporary look, and to accompany it there are also crustaceans which, in reality, are not present in the original recipe. After tasting, though, we certainly forgive him.
Rosi Napoli, Caupona Taverna di Sicilia
Rosi became a cook by chance, following the twists and turns of life, which often starts in one way and then takes us somewhere else. In her case, the initial project was to get a degree in natural sciences, then devote herself to research and teaching. Instead, after completing her studies in Pisa, in 2008 she opened a restaurant with her husband Claudio Carbonari. Luckily, I must say, when sitting al fresco just opposite the beautiful facade of the church of Purgatory (here the “Mysteries” are kept, that is the ancient statues parading through the old center of Trapani on Good Friday).
In fact, Claudio brought us an excellent cùscusu, seasoned with fish morsels and accompanied by tasty broth, perfect to “allippari a vucca”, literally “greasing the mouth”. The broth, in other words, must leave a full-bodied sensation. Rita prepares cùscusu every day, but in small quantities, and the semolina is scented with cinnamon and bay leaf. Not to be missed!
Amoroso family, La Tramontana
Maria is in the kitchen, Natale, having put aside his degree in economics, takes care of the dining room. The recipes used in this restaurant are those of the family, fishermen for generations, and very passionate about the sea. So much so, that Maria and Natale had to force their father, Salvatore, to retire from his life at sea at the age of 77.
The restaurant, in a magnificent position on the Tramontana Walls, with the Ligny Tower that stands out on the sea right in front of the tables, was born as a natural enrichment of the fishing tourism activity that the Amoroso family started already in 2007. The menu obviously includes fish in quantity, the cùscusu is the traditional one, which Maria prepares following the teachings of her mother. That means no crustaceans or other condiments apart from broth fish. The latter is served separately, and in one piece: it takes a little patience, to get rid of the fishbones.
Marilù Terrasi, The Pocho
I often write about Marilù, I have known her all my life. She was an actress, she studied folklore, then, a little by chance and a little by choice, she came to the restaurant business. In her inn on the sea of Macari, on the outskirts of San Vito Lo Capo (I also wrote about it here), cùscusu is a must. Marilù prepares it with passion and competence and has traveled throughout Europe and beyond, to promote it, bringing her old mafaradda (the bowl in which the semolina is kneaded to obtain the couscous grains) and couscous pot with her. In her kitchen, you can take courses if you want to learn how to prepare traditional Trapani cùscusu, as well as the secrets and history of this rich and complex dish.
Are you ready to try yourself? Then you’ll need the right semolina and a cuscussera. You’ll find the first in Rosalia Portoghesi’s little bakery, in via Nunzio Nasi 73, while you can buy the pot at Alberti, in via Conte Agostino Pepoli 48/54. Both adresses in Trapani.