The night boat from Naples usually docks in Palermo by 6.15am; if we are lucky, we can be at a port bar eating deep-fried pastries and orange-sized rice balls filled with ragù by 7.15. Like every port in the world, it smells of greased metal, resinous paint, burnt diesel and fish, all of which collide with the scent of coffee, sugar and cooking oil – an intoxicating mix that signifies our summer in Sicily has begun. With greasy chins and brushing icing sugar from our chests, we get back in the car and escape Palermo before we get caught in snarls of traffic.
Usually we are going to my partner Vincenzo’s home town of Gela, so we head straight through, cutting across to the other side of the island. Every now and then, we drive to his father’s hometown of Messina – in which case the journey is clockwise along the coast. Just once, in my 14 years of these journeys, have we driven the other way – anticlockwise and westwards – places flashing past like postcards: Monreale, Alcamo, Segesta, Trapani, Marsala and – a universe all of its own – Mazara del Vallo.
Mazara del Vallo is where the Arab Muslim dynasty that ruled modern-day Tunisia came ashore in 827AD. As Mary Taylor Simeti writes in her book On Persephone’s Island, the Aghlabids came to colonise, and brought with them highly sophisticated irrigation techniques, and introduced lemons, oranges, date palms, melons, mulberry, silkworms, sugarcane and rice, all of which flourished in the Sicilian soil.
The Arabs – and Tunisian sailors – also brought with them the north-African food known as cuscusù (couscous) a tradition that thrives to this day on the western coast, especially in San Vito Lo Capo, Erice, Trapani – and Mazara, which still has a vast fishing fleet manned by both Sicilians and Tunisians, and where Arabic is spoken in bars and trattorie that serve couscous in various ways, but especially with fish and deeply flavoured fish broths.
I’ve only ever made Sicilian-style couscous from scratch at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school with Fabrizia Lanza, and most recently with an Irish chef called Michael. The first stage is called incocciata. Large-grained semola, which is durum wheat semolina flour, is sprinkled with lightly salted water and then rubbed and swished clockwise around the bowl until it forms swollen little lumps. Traditionally, this is done in a terracotta dish called a mafaradda, the rough texture and slanting sides of which help the process. We did it in plastic bowls and it worked pretty well. The plump couscous is then tipped into the top part of a pignata or couscoussiera, which, like a vegetable steamer, is perforated with holes like a colander. Water is boiled in the lower part, the steam from which swells the couscous. Depending on the accompanying sauce, the couscous might be seasoned while it steams with finely chopped onion and parsley; along with whole bay leaves or a stick of cinnamon, which are impaled into the grains like tiny trunks.Advertisement
The couscous needs to steam for at least an hour, maybe more – which is fine if you have the time and inclination, which I sometimes do, and sometimes don’t. An untraditional alternative is the joy and kitchen saviour that is instant couscous, which simply needs – as I am sure you know – tipping into a warm bowl, covering with one and half times water or fish broth (400g needs 600ml) and resting under a tea towel for 10 minutes, before fluffing with a fork.
To purists, this fish and broth recipe might also seem untraditional, but I hope respectful.
Sicilian-style couscous with fish – cuscusù con pesce
The pounded sauce, with its ticklish and essential heat, must have come from Tunisia, too. I make plenty, so after ladling the fish and some of the broth on to the couscous, I can pass round the remaining bright-red paste for those who want more heat – and any leftover broth, too, for those who want a more soupy plateful (and chin).
Prep 15 min – 1 hr
Cook 1 hr 10 min
- 1-2kg fish: eg unpeeled prawns, scorpion fish, grouper, skate, john dory, mullet, bream (all with bone in)
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, peeled and sliced
- 1 stick celery, diced
- 1 small bulb fennel, sliced
- A few stalks of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked from stems
- 1 pinch red chilli flakes
- A tin of plum tomatoes, chopped
- Bay leaves
- 2 garlic cloves
- 50g blanched almonds
- Salt and pepper
- 200g shellfish – eg calamari, mussels, clams
- A splash of white wine
- 400g couscous
First prepare the fish – or ask your fishmonger to do it. Pull the heads from the prawns, and skin and fillet the fish, separating and reserving bones, heads and scraps.
In a large, deep frying pan, warm five tablespoons of olive oil and fry the onion, celery, fennel, parsley stalks and a pinch of red chilli flakes until they are soft. Add the tomatoes and two bay leaves and bubble for a minute, then add two litres of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then add the fish bones, heads and scraps to the pan.
Pound or blitz the garlic, almonds, parsley, chilli, eight tablespoons of olive oil and a good pinch of salt into a paste. Add half to the stock pan, reserving the rest for serving.
Cover the stock, simmer for 30-40 minutes, then strain into a large pan. Taste for salt and set aside – keep hot.
Lay a few bay leaves at the bottom of a large, shallow, warmed serving bowl, then pour in the dry couscous. Pour over 600ml of the fish stock, cover with a tea towel and leave somewhere warm for 10 minutes.
Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan, and fry the shellfish for a few minutes, until cooked through and the clams open. Raise the heat, add a splash of wine, let it all sizzle, then cover with just enough fish broth to poach the fish. Add the fish flesh to the pan, reduce to a lively simmer, and poach for five to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the fish pieces.
Fluff up the couscous, and on to this ladle the fish and its cooking broth. Top with the remaining garlic, chilli and almond paste and sprinkle with the parsley leaves.
Serve, giving people both forks and spoons, passing around the remaining broth for those who want a more soupy bowlful.