European Journal | Italy: Sikh Cheese Producers

Curry Parmesan: Sikhs rescue Italy's famous cheese

Who would have thought that Sikhs would some day become the workers behind Italy's historic cheese industry?

ZIBELLO, October 26, 2011 (AFP) - A master in the art of making Parmesan cheese, Manjit Singh is part of a large community of Sikhs in northern Italy who are shoring up an industry under threat of extinction.

Since moving from India seven years ago, the former taxi driver has become the main cheesemaker in a small family-run factory that produces thousands of rounds of the world-famous cheese.

Many of Italy's 25,000-strong Sikh community originate from India's Punjab region but have found their calling producing Parmesan and prosciutto ham in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna.

Most are employed as dairy hands but some, such as Singh, are taking over key roles in preparing the sharply flavoured hard cheese grated onto pasta dishes and shaved into salads the world over.

"I looked for any work when I first arrived, even as a dishwasher. I was ready to do anything, but I like being a cheesemaker a lot," said the 34-year-old father of two.

Graziano Cacciali, who runs the Parmesan plant in Zibello, took Singh on as help in 2004 after undergoing a heart bypass operation and said he has enjoyed teaching him skills that Italians were no longer prepared to learn.

"There aren't Italians in the industry any more. Making Parmesan means long hours: you have to work weekends, holidays, every day of the year. Italians have money and the young won't do the job any more," he said.

"I've stayed because I'm passionate about it, you have to be," said the 71-year-old as he supervised Singh stir vat after vat of slowly heated cow's milk, breaking up the curds with a huge, unwieldy whisk.

"We're really lucky to have found foreigners to milk our cows"

At the dairy in nearby Novellara, which specialises in producing milk for making Parmesan, half the labourers are Sikhs, prized as methodical, hard workers who are eager to fill the posts that open as Italians desert the industry.

By Italian standards, the money is very good too, with Sikh cheesemakers earning up to 2,000 euros ($2,800) a month.

"Most of our workers are Indian," said farmer Stefano Gazzini. "They are more dedicated to their work. They seem to have integrated well into the community, and even have their own temple."

The first Sikhs arrived in the region at the end of the 1980s. While a few opened their own import-export businesses, many found work in cattle farms or cheese factories -- and tasted Parmesan for the first time, Singh said.

Wearing saffron, white or blue turbans, the men accompany their wives to the market on their days off and sip milky tea under the porticoes in Novellara's historic centre, before heading off to the large white temple, or gurdwara.

With a fast-growing community to serve -- the Sikhs are boosting Italy's notoriously feeble birthrate -- another temple was inaugurated in nearby Pessina Cremonese this year.

"We are really lucky to have found foreigners to come and milk our cows, otherwise we would not have found anyone," Gazzini said.

"The industry would be on the road to extinction. ... No one wants to do this job anymore," the 28-year-old added.

The dairy's 1,100 cows are fed on a special diet following strict criteria for making trademark Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which includes storing the rounds for 12 months before they are inspected by a special consortium.

Once Singh has scooped the curd from the vats into pieces of muslin and placed it in moulds, he leaves the large wheels to soak in a salt bath before drying them out in their hundreds on towering wooden stacks.

Cacciali admits Singh's handiwork is often better now than his own.

Although Singh says owning his own plant is a distant dream for now, the Sikh and his compatriots may be the future for an industry that produces three million cheeses a year but would struggle without fresh manpower.

And for new generations of Italian-born Sikhs, the prized cheese is taking on a whole new flavour. The latest trend on local tables? Curry topped with grated Parmesan.


Who would have thought that Sikhs would some day become the workers behind Italy's historic cheese industry? And I thought the only cheese we liked eating was paneer with roti and mozzarella with our pizza. Watch the video below about the Sikhs in Italy.

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