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Even the most imaginative person would have difficulty in conjuring up a vision of 55,000 portions of couscous being served at the same time but this is what happens every year at San Vito lo Capo, a village on the north west coast of Sicily in Trapani province where the CousCous Fest - the most important celebrative event of this dish - has been held for the past 18 years.
Widely consumed throughout the Mediterranean basin, couscous consists of durum wheat granules flavoured with spices and accompanied with meat (usually chicken, lamb or mutton) but also fish and vegetables (carrots, turnips etc.) stewed in a broth that may be more or less hot and spicy. The success and popularity of this dish is attributable to its neutral taste, which makes it an ideal accompaniment to an infinite variety of ingredients and spices. As a result, it represents many different cultures and has become one of the dishes most open to culinary “contaminations”.
To realize just how true this is, you just need to review the dishes presented at the Cous Cous Fest competition: are you ready to take off from San Vito lo Capo to travel around the world to discover 8 different couscous recipes and versions?
Joint winner of the event on a par with Mauritius, Italy presented Oro Rosso (Red Gold): a couscous aromatized with Timut pepper and finely chopped almonds accompanied by a portion of amberjack, a raw prawn and mayonnaise made from the heads of the extremely sweet Mazara del Vallo red prawns, another Sicilian gastronomic excellence. The dish was prepared by chefs Rocco Pace from San Vito Lo Capo and Stefano De Gregorio from Lombardy.
On the Mauritius islands, couscous is interpreted as a starter served with curried prawns and lemongrass, cooked and served in a hermetically sealed glass jar. This recipe is signed by chef Vinod Sookar.
The United States version presented by Sara Kramer and Pamela Yung is a vegetarian dish containing just one animal by-product: whey. The two chefs daringly chose to combine a dairy product with the acidic taste of pickled onions: a risky choice which came off well in this dish.
The Moroccan couscous prepared by chef Suede Barouz, of Moroccan origin and Italian adoption, most effectively represents the encounter between the two countries: “I was inspired by your lasagne”, says the chef as he explains his dish consisting of layers of vegetables cut julienne-style and pan-tossed, alternated with layers of couscous flavoured with spices and tender morsels of meat. In Morocco, a country where couscous is viewed as a most traditional dish, you may also come across sweet and sour fish versions with sultanas and onions.
France presented a complex dish with three different types of meat: beef, veal and lamb. In all, about forty ingredients went into this dish, making it a perfect example of the grandeur of French cuisine: signed by chef Jean-Roch Audion, owner of the Edgard restaurant at Saint-Laurent du Var on the Côte d’Azur.
In Tunisia, couscous is usually served with fish and squid in a red sauce. Tunisian chef Fethi Kahlaoui steps away from tradition to present his version with chickpeas and slices of squid stuffed with shrimps, spinach and harissa, a hot sauce of chilli pepper, garlic and olive oil.
Born of a Bahian mother and a Cariocan father, chef Cristopher Cabicieri owner of the Zuza restaurant comes from Rio de Janeiro to represent Brazil. For the Cous Cous Fest he has chosen a simple, minimalist version of couscous served with octopus which is first boiled and then grilled. The durum wheat granules mixed with broccoli are seasoned with a red wine and balsamic vinegar sauce: a winning recipe.
Israel was represented by Boaz Cohen: his couscous flavoured with parsley, lavender and lemon was teamed up with chickpeas and hand-shredded chicken and a sauce of dried apricots.