Cheese makers of Italy

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A Sikh couple, farm workers in Italy

Onkar Singh and Balveer Kaur family are one of the 25,000+ Sikh Italian families with roots from India's Punjab region. Like many in the Sikh community they have found their calling producing Parmesan and other cheese products in Lombardy and the Emilia Romagna regions.

Most are employed as dairy hands but some, such as Onkar and Balveer, are taking key roles in preparing the sharply flavoured hard cheeses, like Parmesan and Pecorino, that are today grated onto pasta dishes and shaved into salads the world over.

Onkar Singh, Balveer Kaur typify the struggle of Sikhs who landed in large numbers in Italy in the mid-nineteen eighties and early nineties during the Indian government's excesses, when the massacres and other gross human rights violations in Punjab (and elsewhere in India) created a mini-Punjab on Italian soil.

“They work hard at school; they’re not spoiled like our kids,” said Gianluigi Fiamenghi, who employs seven Indian workers on his dairy farm of 1,700 cows. “And their children won’t want to work on a farm, they’ll go to university and want to get ahead.”

The Sikh Stamp on Italian Cheese

A Sikh farm worker in Italy

House No 37 in Village Olmeneta, near the Cremona area of Italy, quintessentially represents the Sikh role in keeping the Italian formaggio (cheese) and dairy industry alive.

Not only this, its habitants Onkar Singh, Balveer Kaur and their family typify the struggle of Sikhs who landed in large numbers in Italy in the nineteen hundred and eighties during the Indian's government excesses - massacres and other gross human rights violations -- in Punjab and created a mini-Punjab on Italian soil.

“My father is one of the earliest Sikh settlers in this area; he started working on the dairy farms in the early 1990s,” says 22-year-old Jaspinder Kaur, as we walk from the Olmeneta train station to her house, where I would spend two days to experience firsthand the Sikh stamp on the Italian dairy industry.

“He came here as a young man, leaving his village, Pandori, in Hoshiarpur district, in search for a better life,” adds Jaspinder, as she ushers me inside the house.

As the story goes, the Italian youth after getting educated did not want to pursue low-skilled jobs of milking and grazing the cows at dairy farms. Enter, Sikhs in search of safer and greener pastures, as Punjab boiled, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, under the yoke of police and military oppression.

Taking full advantage of the asylum benefits offered by Italy, thousands of farm workers from Punjab landed in this European haven, ready to do any job, as long as they could get their foothold in Italy. Well, so strong is the entrenchment that ask any Sikh sitting in the local train where he works, catch me if he doesn’t say ‘Stalla’, meaning dairy farm.

Believe me, it’s the only patch of land in the world where Italian is spoken in a Punjabi accent and cows understand only Punjabi. And of course, the maa di, bhen di version of it, as well!

“I don’t know what the Sikhs tell my cows, but they (cows) behave very well,” laughs Alfredo Villa, a dairy farm owner, who has employed only Sikhs for the past two decades. “Jokes apart, Sikhs are one of the most honest and hardworking people I have met in my life,” he says.

Italy is full of immigrant labour from all over the globe, but nothing beats the Sikhs. Other than human qualities, they are skilled to do jobs in agriculture and dairying and don’t take much vacation, something very crucial to the dairying industry, adds Alfredo.

Onkar Singh, who received me with open arms, narrates his journey as we eat dinner at his house. Pizzas roll out from the oven like chapattis and I gorge on them greedily, knowing fully well that this is not a household that believes in traditional tandoori chicken.

A man of very soft demeanour, Onkar Singh says he had to do many temporary jobs, including working as a driver in a circus, before he could find a stable job here in the Lombardy region, which is known for its agriculture, dairying, beef and piggery.

“I finally found a job in a dairy farm in the early 1990s and I worked with the same owner for over a decade, living on the Stalla itself with my family,” says Onkar, whose job profile included milking of cows at 12.30 am, feeding them and milking them again in the evening -- a routine which he still follows, except that he lives in his own house. Onkar Singh also drove me to his work place and showed me the dairy farm operations and the manner in which the cows were milked.

Next morning, Jaspinder makes an effort and takes me to visit one of the largest cheese factories in the region. The factory, Latteria Sorseina (meaning dairy or store selling milk of Sorsenia region) produces cheeses such as the grano padano, parmigiana, reggiani, provolone and mozzarella.

Jaspinder’s meticulous planning assures that we are received by the top management of the company, which lauds the contribution of the Sikhs to the dairy industry.

“We certainly owe it to the Sikhs for keeping the business of cheese alive,” says the director general, Aldo Cavagnoli.

The might of the Sikh contribution can be gauged from the fact that Latteria Sorsenia, which processes milk of approximately 43,000 cows from about 200 farms, has a mind boggling 89% of the immigrant work force and 54% of the total labour at these dairy farms comprises of mostly Sikhs.

On our return from the cheese factory, we head for other dairy farms, including the largest one in the Cremona area with 750 cows.

Four Sikh families tend to this dairy farm. They are all related, a hallmark of the emigration pattern of the Sikhs in Italy. The oldest member, Dilbagh Singh of village Jandiran in Jalandhar district, has been working on the dairy since 1997.

“It’s been a hard life,” he claims, as he herds a bunch into the milking chambers.

“When I came here in 1991, I saw no future for myself in Punjab,” he adds. But today, the circumstances are different. If the youth put in this kind of labour back home in Punjab, I’m sure they can progress much more and contribute to the state’s economy,” he says.

And as we head home, a resolute Onkar Singh tells me that his children will not do these low-skilled jobs. His daughter, Jaspinder Kaur, who has completed her graduation in international trade and now pursuing languages, is seeking newer opportunities.

Gurminder Singh, his 18-year-old son, besides his craze for driving guests (he just got his driver's licence), is pursuing a course in architecture.

Salute to the spirit of the Sikhs, who even when in Rome, do it the Punjab way.

(Article Courtesy: Hindustan Times edited by KHUSHWANT SINGH, Chandigarh, Punjab)

Curry Parmesan: Sikhs rescue Italy's famous cheese

A Sikh stall owner in Italy

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.

(Article with thanks to ZIBELLO, October 26, 2011 (AFP))

In Italian Heartland, Indians Keep the Cheese Coming

PESSINA CREMONESE, ITALY — Alongside common local last names like Ferrari and Galli, the telephone directories for the province of Cremona have been registering an increasingly present surname: Singh.

For the past 20 years, Indian immigrants from Punjab have been settling in Italy’s agricultural heartland to work primarily on farms, often as bergamini, as dairy workers are known in the native dialect.

It has been said that if the Indian workers went on strike, production of Grana Padano, the hard, grainy, spaghetti-topper that this tract of the Po Valley is known for, would shut down.

“Well, I don’t know if production would stop, but it would certainly create many difficulties,” said Simone Solfanelli, the president of the Cremona chapter of Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural organization. “I can tell you that they are indispensable for farming,” and for the milk produced in the province — at one million tons per year, about a tenth of all milk produced in Italy, he added.

The Indians, many of whom are Sikhs, first arrived in the area just as a generation of dairy workers was retiring, with no substitutes in sight.

“They saved an economy that would have gone to the dogs because young people didn’t want to work with cows,” Mayor Dalido Malaggi of Pessina Cremonese said. Though the dairy industry is mostly mechanized today, human labor is still necessary 365 days a year, he explained.

The work is split in two four-hour shifts per day, about 12 hours apart. “Young Italians don’t want to work those kinds of hours,” he said. “They’d prefer to work in factories and have evenings and weekends free.”

It was a fortunate match, because many of the immigrants already knew what it took to keep a farm running.

“This is dairy land, and many of us have cows in Punjab,” said Jaswinder Duhra, who has lived in Italy for 25 years, working first as a bergamino and then for one of Italy’s best-known cheese manufacturers. “We’re used to the work that we do here.”

There are no official statistics of how many Indians work in dairy barns here, but Mr. Solfanelli said that of the 3,000 agricultural laborers in the province, about a third are Indian.

One measure of their presence was the inauguration last month of the Gurduwara Sri Guru Kalgidhar Sahib, a Sikh temple designed to hold 600 comfortably (thought at least six times as many people attended the opening ceremony on Aug. 21). It has been touted as the largest Sikh temple in Continental Europe.

Built in an industrial area that includes a factory of vacuum pump compressors and a cold-cut production plant, the temple was inspired by Sikh models in India “but is both a monument and a center for the community,” said its designer, Giorgio Mantovani. (Other Sikh temples in the vicinity have been located in repurposed poultry farms or warehouses.)

The road from the drawing board to the gleaming white structure that rises amid soya and corn fields was not without its rocky patches.

Municipal permits were given and withdrawn in a nearby town when the temple became a politically thorny issue, so another site was found. A decade’s worth of bureaucratic hurdles also had to be overcome, money had to be raised by the Sikh community, and loans found to make up the rest of the price tag of €2 million, or nearly $3 million. “It took years, but we all pitched in as best we could,” Mr. Duhra said.

The temple is still missing a fountain in front of the entrance and the gilded cupolas that characterize Sikh architecture. The latter have been a matter of some concern, because Cremona’s clammy, foggy winters “make gold a bad choice,” Mayor Malaggi said. Various other construction materials are being considered.

While the mayor was an active supporter of the temple, and the road sign into town proudly proclaims Pessina Cremonese to be “free from racial prejudices,” there was some opposition from local politicians with the Northern League, the political party most closely associated with anti-immigrant oratory in Italy. A small group of protesters from Forza Nuova, an extreme right party, demonstrated when the temple opened.

Manuel Gelmini, a Northern League lawmaker in Cremona’s provincial council who unsuccessfully tried to block the building of the temple, said his main concern was the Kirpan, the ceremonial sword carried by orthodox Sikh. “For us, it’s a weapon, and people shouldn’t be allowed to go around armed,” he said.

He also objected to the use of Punjabi as the lingua franca in the temple. “They live in Lombardy,” he said. “How can there be integration if we allow them to speak their own language in a public space?”

But tellingly, the Northern League has not campaigned openly against the Indian immigrants working as bergamini. “As long as they respect our laws, work legally and learn Italian, they are welcome in our country,” Mr. Gelmini said.

Dilbagh Singh arrived in Italy when he was 14, and now, 12 years later, he speaks with the distinctive accent of his adopted hometown, Nogara, near Mantua. He said his compatriots “come here to work, and want to live peacefully.” To this end, Mr. Singh runs a Web site on Sikhs in Italy so that “Italians can understand us.”

“We want people to know who we are,” he said.

Nearly 16,000 Indian immigrants are legally employed in agriculture in Italy, with the Lazio region becoming the newest pole of immigration, especially for seasonal workers. “You only have to travel 100 kilometers from Rome to discover a world most people don’t even know exists,” said Patrizia Santangelo, a filmmaker whose documentary about the Sikh community in the province of Latina, “Visit India,” is to have its premiere in October.

Ms. Santangelo’s documentary exposes some of the exploitation that many immigrant workers are subject to, regardless of their provenance.

“They often live in camps, like homeless people, and can get paid low wages, 2 to 4 euros an hour for 12-hour days,” she said. “But what struck me is that even though the live in difficult conditions, the Indian workers are still able to see the positive side of situations.”

In the north, life seems less harsh, at least on the surface. Many of the Indian immigrants have become Italian citizens. Many have bought homes and settled their families here.

According to the national statistics agency, about 40 percent of all Indian immigrants to Italy are women, but only a small percentage have jobs. In the case of Pessina Cremonese, concerns about their isolation have been sporadically addressed with Italian lessons and work-training programs, and labor unions have offered similar programs in other towns.

Many of the Indian immigrants have also raised children in Italy, who imagine a different future.

“They work hard at school; they’re not spoiled like our kids,” said Gianluigi Fiamenghi, who employs seven Indian workers on his dairy farm of 1,700 cows. “And their children won’t want to work on a farm, they’ll go to university and want to get ahead.”

One of Mr. Fiamenghi’s workers, Prem Singh, moved to Italy in 1995, and many of his relatives followed. He and his wife are raising three children now in primary school. “They feel more Italian than Indian,” he said, adding that he had no plans to return to his native land. “We’ve put down our roots here. It’s our home, and that’s that.”

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