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in cheese history—which goes back to 4,000 BC—Parmesan is but a strutting, over-deodorised youth: its first (surviving) historical reference, a disputed one at that, dates back to either the late 1290s or 1344.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.