Indian Sikhs Save Italy’s Parmesan Cheese Industry

By Nikhil Misra-Bhambri

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Indian Sikhs Save Italy’s Parmesan Cheese Industry
Native to northern Italy, Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to the middle ages when monks made hard cheese as a way of preserving milk. Above, from the film Sikh Farmaggio, that explored todays’ bridging of two cultures. Photo Courtesy Dan Duran
Why Parmigiano Reggiano still lands on your dinner plate.
From pasta to pizza, from fine cuisine to comfort food, the mention of Italian food sparks the imagination and excites the palate with combinations of fresh ingredients, seasonings unique to the country and artisanal cheeses. Three of the top ten best restaurants in Los Angeles rated by, serve Italian cuisine. Barely thirty years ago, the future of the parmesan cheese industry in Italy looked grim, as the younger generation left the family farms that make up the Italian cheese-making landscape. Without them, Los Angeles’ Italian restaurants and grocery stores would have lost one of the key ingredients that provide the authentic savory flavors to Italian cuisine. An unlikely, fortuitous turn of events forever transformed and ensured the future of Italian Parmesan cheese, when a group of brown-skinned, turbaned Sikhs from India’s Punjab province appeared in Northern Italy’s green valleys seeking work. They brought with them a love of farming and the innate skills that were in short supply in Italy and became the key to the renaissance of Italy’s Parmesan cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano (what is commonly called Parmesan in the U.S.), is a hard, granular cheese produced from cows’ milk. It has a sharp, nutty taste, and is regarded by connoisseurs as the “king of cheeses.” Native to Northern Italy, its origins date back to the Middle Ages when monks began making hard cheese as a way of preserving milk. By the Renaissance, it had become a staple meal that was used in snacks, soups, pasta, and main dishes. Cows are typically milked early in the morning and the milk is mixed with naturally skimmed milk, which is made by storing milk from the prior evening’s milking in large tanks to allow the cream to separate. This is just the beginning of a long and careful process in which milk is slowly heated in copper vats, curdled, separated, and aged for 12-36 months. More than 120 gallons of milk go into the production of a one-hundred-pound wheel that is only released for the market after inspection by an official governing body. How Sikhs came to be involved in this ancient Italian tradition was revealed in a 2011 article in the Hindustan Times of New Delhi, titled “Sikh Stamp on Italian Cheese,” by the internationally renowned author Khushwant Singh after he visited several Sikh families in the Cremona region of Italy. He wrote, “It is the only patch of land where Italian is spoken in a Punjabi accent and cows understand only Punjabi.”
Sikh Migrant worker Singh Maha making Parmesan Reggiano cheese at the Roncocesi dairy factory, Photo Credit Catalina Martin-Chico, Courtesy of the BBc
The Punjab, “Land of Five Rivers,” is a large region spanning Northwest India and Northeast Pakistan. Regarded as the “breadbasket of India,” it is a largely agricultural state, and acres of lush farmland dot the countryside. The history of the Sikh community is intimately connected with the blessings of their fertile homeland. Extremely hard-working and entrepreneurial, they are the driving force in Punjab’s agricultural industry and are well respected for their tenacity and perseverance.

Inveterate explorers and adventurers, they have become pioneers in farming in many parts of the world, including California’s Yuba City and Central Valley, where one of them, Didar Singh Bains, is regarded as “California’s Peach King” and in Indio, where Harbhajan Singh Samra is known as the “Okra King.”

Italy is among the more recent nations to reap the economic benefits of the Sikh community. In a relatively short period, it has become home to Europe’s second largest Sikh population, after the United Kingdom. Estimates show that between 60,000 and 150,000 Sikhs live in Italy. Beginning in the 1980s, with a larger influx in the 1990s, many Sikhs immigrated to Italy with the hope of better employment prospects and found the Po Valley of Northern Italy to be similar to Punjab with its warm climate, lack of mountains, and abundant agricultural opportunities.

Adapting to the Po Valley was neither a large culture shock nor a lifestyle adjustment for the newly arrived Sikh immigrants. They had worked in farming back home, and they did not need to speak Italian in order to do the agricultural work. Most Sikhs became involved in working directly with the cows, while others became cheese-makers. Their contributions were featured in 2011 in the New York Times, “In Italian Heartland, Indians Keep the Cheese Coming,” where Jaswinder Dubra, a Sikh who had risen over a period of 25 years from working as a dairy hand to working for one of Italy’s best known cheese manufacturers said, “This is dairy land and many of us have cows in Punjab. We are used to the work that we do here.”

Dalido Malaggi, Mayor of Cremona, commented in a documentary, Sikh Formaggio, that “Production of cheese in the region would have had many problems, since our youth population was not willing to work in farming. The presence of the Sikhs has allowed Italians to fill the work force gap and save parmesan cheese. While the dairy industry is mostly mechanized today, human labor is still necessary 365 days a year.” A Sikh farmer in the documentary commented, “The first shift usually begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 8 a.m., while the second shift is from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.”
Sikh Migrant worker (who became an Italian citizen in 2013) Singh Mahan sweeps flow in a room where wheels of Parmesan Reggiano cheese are storied as they mature at the Ronococesi dairy factor Photo credit: Catalina Martin-Chico, Courtesy of the BBC
The Italian people’s gratitude for the Sikhs’ hard work and their attempts to help them integrate has been pivotal to the continued success of Italy’s export of Parmesan cheese. Alfredo Villa, a dairy farm owner mentions in “Sikh Stamp on Italian Cheese,” “I do not know what Sikhs tell my cows, but they behave very well. Sikhs are one of the most honest and hardworking people I have met in my life.”

In 2000, the Novellara municipality was the first in Italy to grant permission to build a Gurudwara, or Sikh temple, which over time, has become Europe’s second largest Gurudwara. Today, there are twenty-two Gurudwaras throughout Italy. Furthermore, Sikh families have embraced Italian culture, while also retaining their Punjabi heritage. In Sikh Formaggio, Jaspinder Saini states, “We eat Italian and Indian Punjabi food. You will see our pizza mixed up with onion and peppers. We mix everything.” Another resident, Bobby Harvinder said in a YouTube video, “Our whole life is here, including our children’s schooling and hopefully their future careers. We are aware of our Sikh origins but we want our children to experience Indian and Italian culture as equally important.”

Sikh immigrants have a history of bringing their work ethic, instilled from centuries of working the land in Punjab, to remote corners of the globe. Their extroverted personality and willingness to shoulder hard physical labor with humor and without complaint have contributed to the growth of the Italian economy, while allowing Los Angeles’ foodies to continue enjoying quality Italian cheese. The Government of Italy has ensured the continued bonanza of Parmesan by encouraging Punjabi cultural presence in local towns. Sikhs are now proud to call Italy their home. As a result, Angelinos will never have a shortage of authentic Italian Parmigiano Reggianogmail on our pasta and pizza.

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October 16, 2020