Some airports let you know immediately where you are the second you get off the plane. In San Diego, my home when I’m not in Italy, you find nice weather (always, except in June), palm trees and the smell of the sea, which unfortunately you can’t see from the airport. Palermo does better, much better. As you step off the plane you see a mountain behind you, Mont San Pellegrino, that’s almost close enough to touch, and in the other direction you have the sea practically lapping against the airport’s front door.
From Palermo’s airport it’s an hour ride to San Vito Lo Capo, a small town on the coast about halfway between Palermo and Trapani in Sicily’s northwest corner. This is a foodie’s paradise all year long, but especially this week when there is the Cous Cous Fest here in San Vito Lo Capo. For the next 72 hours I’ll be eating couscous non-stop as I perform my duties as one of the eight judges of this international competition.
While those who have never been to this part of Sicily may wonder what they are doing having a couscous festival here, those who have had the good fortune to see this beautiful corner of Italy know that the dish we normally associate with North Africa is an integral part of the diet here.
This is the 14th edition of the event, which last year hosted 200,000 people who in five days consumed 4 tons of couscous, 30,000 portions of Sicilian sweets, 9,000 bottles of wine, and 1,000 liters of extra virgin olive oil. I’ll be doing my part to boost all those numbers this year.
Nine countries – Ivory Coast, Egypt, France, Israel, Italy, Morocco, Palestine (I know it’s not a country yet, but almost), Senegal, and Tunisia – will compete in eliminatory rounds that will be followed by a direct knockout phase.
While the people representing the nine countries will have their game faces on for the competition, the point here is to use couscous as an impetus for integration. Something to the effect of, “we all eat the same thing, why can’t we just get along.” So simple and perhaps even naïve as to make it a compelling idea. It’s a well known fact that if you have had a plate of couscous with somebody, it’s harder to hate them and even more difficult to shoot at them.
I rode over to San Vito with a few other judges, the cook representing France (who made no secret of the fact that she feared her North African competition), and the president of the jury, which I suppose makes him my boss for the next few days. Paolo Marchi, said president, is a well-known Italian food journalist, whose intangible foodie credentials are boosted by his very tangible thick mid-section.
“Can we stop for a coffee on the way?” Paolo asked the driver before we all got in the car.
The question sounded innocent enough that I could be forgiven for thinking that was all we were stopping for when in fact the coffee was a pretext to begin our Sicilian eating fest before our first hour on the island was out. Before the coffee had been ordered, Paolo and I had had an arancino – a large, fried ball of rice filled with mozzarella and prosciutto (there is also a version filled with ragù sauce) – and a Genovese, a pastry filled with sweet ricotta.
I am off to start eating couscous, stay tuned.