BBC Magazine: The Sikhs Who Saved Parmesan
The next time you buy some real Parmesan cheese from Parma, Italy, thank the Sikhs.
In the 1980s, Sikhs from India discovered Parma and the Po Valley was just like home. And cows don’t much care what language you speak, so the immigrants quickly found work on diary farms. They replaced a waning Italian workforce, which wanted to get away from diary farm work.
Cows make milk. Milk makes cheese. No milk, no cheese. So the Sikh dairy farm workers saved Parmesan cheese from oblivion, say the locals in Novellara, a small town near Parma.
According to mayor Elena Carletti, the immigrant labour force has been fundamental to maintaining and preserving traditional cheese production: “It would be impossible to think of this industry without the support of people from India,” she says.
Unlike some communities in, say, the USA, Parma welcomed the newcomers and even arranged for land to be set aside for a Sikh temple. Local schoolchildren are now accustomed to classmates wearing turbans. And Sikh kids who grew in Parma think of themselves as Italians.
But the story of Novellara’s Sikh community is about much more than cheese. If they are still here it is largely thanks to the welcome they received from the local community. Keen to listen to the needs of immigrant communities, the municipality was the first in Italy to grant permission to build a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) by allowing an industrial plot to be used for religious purposes. Opened in 2000 by Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and European Commission president, the Gurdwara is considered among the most important in Europe. The oldest and one of the largest, it is soon to expand further, says Carletti, whose office recently approved the plans.
When the area was hit by earthquakes in 2012, the Sikh community cooked and took food to the victims twice a day. Earlier this year, they donated a car for blood transportation to the Red Cross. “Some of them volunteer for Civil Protection,” says Carletti. “They are part of our community. They are Italians.”
At the Gurdwara, Sikhs like Sukhwinder - who came to Italy seven years ago - say they notice a difference in attitudes toward them in this part of the country. “Those who see us for the first time think we’re terrorists or Taliban. That’s really hard for us. Here people know us. They are really nice.”
Amritpal remembers how effortlessly he explained his long hair and turban to curious school friends, and says they have come a long way since his grandfather’s generation removed their turbans and cut their hair short to fit in. He sees himself as Indo-Italian “because you can’t cut your roots so I keep them alive inside me, but the rest is Italian.” Even from a culinary perspective, he enjoys both cultures. “Obviously I don’t eat meat but at home we eat both Indian and Italian, and we often go out to eat.” And their meals, of course, include Parmigiano Reggiano.
More at bbc.com