Parmesan Goes Indian

Tens of thousands of Sikh immigrants in Italy are helping keep alive the 800-year-old aristocrat of Italian cheeses.

Palmir Singh cleans up after the Friesian cows on the Bellicchi farm in San Secondo Parmense comune (municipality) in Parma. Friesians are vast animals, tipping the scales at 580 kg—and they excrete as copiously as they eat to produce their average of 25 litres of milk a day. {{name}}
01 May, 2012

PARMESAN, A HARD, granular cheese that has to be grated before it releases its aroma, is known as the aristocrat of Italian cheeses. One would surmise, then, that it is an ancient cheese. But in cheese history—which goes back to 4,000 BC—Parmesan is but a strutting, over-deodorised youth: its first (surviving) historical reference, a disputed one at that, dates back to either the late 1290s or 1344. Only in 2002, though, did the European Court of Justice finally grant it ‘Designation of Origin’ status, making it illegal for anywhere in the world outside the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna to use the name ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’, and its derivative, ‘Parmesan’.

The production of Parmesan today looks a lot like it did in the Middle Ages—labour intensive, smelly, and very, very sweaty. And this is where the hardy, willing-to-sweat Sikhs of Parma and Reggio Emilia come in. In the late 1980s, as Parmesan production threatened to tank with the departure of young Italian dairy farmers (bergamini) for white-collar jobs outside the region, the Italian government gave undocumented Sikh immigrati wholesale amnesty. Cheese production in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna was hauled out of the red by tens of thousands of Sikh immigrants. So pervasive is their presence today that, between 2001 and 2002, the provinces where the Sikhs are concentrated increased their production (in terms of wheels), while the others struggled to keep pace with the previous year’s yield.

The Sikhs, many of who are used to working in the fields back home in India, produce the world’s finest Paremsan: each wheel of cheese is carefully inspected for quality, branded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano logo if it passes, and marked with horizontal lines if it falls even a bit short of a never-compromised standard.

The Sikh cheese-workers are paid well enough, up to $2,900 a month, in a country with an annual per capita income of about $27,000. And this has led to some hostility from local politicians affiliated with political parties espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Forza Nuova (New Force), an Extreme Right party, organised a protest in August 2011 when the Gurdwara Sri Guru Kalgidhar Sahib, Continental Europe’s largest, was scheduled to be inaugurated in Vescovato in the northern Lombardy region.

In 2009, the Italian Parliament, confronted with massive migration from Africa and the Mediterranean, criminalised immigrati illegali and threatened them with whopping ¤5,000-10,000 ($6,574-13,148) fines and six months’ detention. Contrarily, however, because the haemorrhaging agricultural industry needs them to survive, the annual quota for temporary foreign workers, including Indians, has been increased. About 83 percent of the Indian immigrants in Italy have ended up living in the northern agricultural regions. And they are the lifeblood of an industry that produces 1.40 million kilograms of cheese (in Emilia-Romagna alone) every year.