We all have tasted and tried Parmesan and Mozzarella cheese in various forms and we know it’s one of the finest products of Italy. But, when we devour a slice of pizza with molten mozzarella on top or shaved parmesan on our pasta, we often don’t think about Sikh farmers. But, the reality is there is a far more important connection between these cheese, Italy and Sikh farmers than we realise.
Sikhs In Po Valley
Far away in the remote plains of Po Valley in Italy is a small town called Novellara where a large number of Sikhs settled in the early 1980’s. It was the territory’s landscape that attracted them to the area; no mountains, hot, humid, where agriculture was more or less the same like back home in Punjab. So the Sikhs felt right at home and some chose to work in factories but majority of them joined dairy farming. It was an easy job to do without having to speak much Italian. They were used to working around cattle too, which was another advantage. This area is not far from the city of Parma - and from Parma and Reggio Emilia comes the name of one of the world's most famous cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano or in English, Parmesan. Under EU rules, it has to be made exclusively from milk produced and transformed into cheese in this area of northern Italy.
Sikh workers were not afraid to do hard work or longer shifts and soon got the hang of dairy farming and cheese production in Italy. A typical day involved two shifts – from 4am to 8am and from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm. Many Sikhs woke up early for prayers so the morning shifts fit into the schedule perfectly too! There were hardly any holidays as the cows need to be milked every day. The local dairy farmers were impressed by the respect and skill with which the Sikh workers handled the animals.
Today, Indians, mainly Sikhs, make up 60% of the Parmesan-producing workforce. You can see Sikh workers in almost all cow sheds around the area tending to the cows, washing and milking them. According to the local mayor of the area, the Sikh workers have played an important part in maintaining and preserving the cheese tradition of Italy. The local communities and council were also keen to listen to the needs of the immigrant community and the Novellara’s municipality was the first to give permission to build a Gurudwara for the Sikh immigrants. In 2000, the temple was opened which is still regarded as one of the most important in Europe and is one of the oldest and largest in the area.
During the 2012 earthquakes, the Sikh community cooked and provided food to the victims twice a day. They have recently donated a car for blood donation transport to the Red Cross.
But this integration has not been easy. The first generation immigrants who came to Italy had to cut their hair short to fit in. People with turbans were often mistaken as anti-social elements. But once the community came to know them, they were very welcoming. Today, the second or third generation of Sikhs find it much easier to live without any fear of mistaken identity. They speak in an Italian accent and are an integral part of the wider community.
Sikhs in Pontinia
Pontinia, is a rural town south of Rome, where you will see Sikh workers in their tradition clothes, bright coloured turbans and long beard, tending to freely grazing mozzarella buffaloes with love, care and devotion. They just don’t feed, wash and milk the cows but also play an important role in the production of premium Mozzarella Cheese which is granted a special status by the EU if it is produced in this region.
There are roughly 60,000 Sikhs living in the area and roughly 800 out of them work in 2,000 dairy farms that specialize in producing mozzarella and buffalo milk. This kind of milk and cheese is stronger in taste than cow’s milk and therefore, more expensive.
Early in the morning, you can see Sikhs riding their bikes through the dusty lanes of the town going to work in the farms. These workers have pretty much saved the mozzarella cheese industry from extinction as the Italian workers were either not interested in the hard shifts involved around the work or considered it menial work. A typical shift is from 5am to 9pm with at least 3 milking sessions per day and barely any holidays as the buffaloes need constant care. Due to their familiarity with the buffaloes and keen spirit to work, the Sikh farmers have kept the cheese industry alive in Italy. Even the market stalls along the road are now run by the Indians.
Future of cheese industry
The cheese industry saw Sikh farmers and workers rescue it from extinction at a time when Italian workers were either nearing retirement with no replacemet in sight or not interested in the work and wanted a factory job with evenings and weekends off. While for now, the cheese industry is being sustained and preserved by the Sikh immigrants in Italy, there is a growing fear that the industry might face the same crisis in the near future as the next generation of Sikh immigrants have moved on the higher education and are interested in pursuing professional careers. There is a growing concern that they may not continue the work of their forefathers. But some of the local communities are hopeful that the next generation of cheese farmers will come not from Punjab but from Pontinia and Po Valley itself!
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