Soft light is their constant companion: the view from Selvapiana e Canossa dairy
© Julia Sellmann

Hard work, hard cheese

  • TEXT GESA STEEGER
  • PHOTOS JULIA SELLMANN

Parmesan is an Italian icon, the pride of an entire region. Today, however, one of the strange blossoms brought forth by globalization is that the delicacy is produced mostly by Indian immigrants.

A bubbling sound, steam, splashes. Milky-white trickles on mustard-yellow stone, warm moisture on tiled walls, in clothes. Gleaming metal tubs, copper pots. Broad-backed men in white overalls and blue gumboots stand stirring lakes of boiling milk, beads of sweat on their forehead, milk froth on the backs of their hands. Outside the first rays of sunlight, a mountain panorama, flower meadows, the bleating of sheep.

It’s eight in the morning at the Selvapiana e Canossa dairy, some 40 kilometers south of Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, which since the 12th century has been the proud home of parmesan cheese. It owes its existence to some Benedictine monks who, while attempting to preserve milk over the winter, happened to invent the Italian gold, Parmigiano Reggiano. The cheese immersed in brine for 20 days before it disappears into dark storerooms for one to two years. On reemerging from the shadows, it has acquired its characteristic salty, smoky flavor. Il migliore, as they say here: the best. The person who makes sure the cheese lives up to its reputation here is Veerendrajet Singh.

He’s a powerful man, quiet, not much of a talker, but very much the hard worker. His right hand disappears into the kettle to reemerge, crushing tiny flakes of milk between his fingers. A gesture with his left hand, and his coworkers bring over the linen cloths in which the finished parmesan will rest for the first few hours. “Nearly there,” says Singh.

Veerendratjet Singh is head cheesemaker at Canossa, the man with the most experience, the one who knows by the curdling of the milky brew when to let the heat out of the pots; he knows how long it takes before a mass of milk flakes becomes a single white curd. Singh, 42, left his father’s farm in Punjab, northern India, 17 years ago for a new life in Italy. For a new life in gumboots and apron – and a life of Italian tradition, of 365 days a year devoted to parmesan.

The cows of the C.I.L.A. cooperative after milking

The cows of the C.I.L.A. cooperative after milking

© Julia Sellmann
Still warm, the curd is lifted out of the whey at the Cooperativa San Lorenzo

Still warm, the curd is lifted out of the whey at the Cooperativa San Lorenzo

© Julia Sellmann
Cheesemaker Veerendrajet Singh

Cheesemaker Veerendrajet Singh

© Julia Sellmann
Fodder for the cattle: the hay barn of a milk cooperative in the south of Lombardy

Fodder for the cattle: the hay barn of a milk cooperative in the south of Lombardy

© Julia Sellmann

  The milk truck arrives every morning at 6 a.m. and at around 8 p.m., the fresh parmesan wheels, each weighing roughly 40 kilograms, are turned for the last time. The cheesemaker’s craft is a physically arduous one, which is why few Italians are interested in preserving it. Too low are the wages, too great the temptations of the glittering big cities. Now others are keeping the tradition alive: Indian immigrants. Many of them, like cheesemaker Singh, hail from Punjab, the holy land of the Sikhs. The first came in the early 1990s. Italy promised good jobs, a pleasant climate, and a landscape not unlike that of their distant homeland. Meanwhile, there are some 140 000 Indians living in Italy, most of them in the north.

Asian spices and Indian jewelry are sold at the heart of the Italian countryside

Industry experts estimate that around 60 percent of the people working in the parmesan business today are from India. Drive through the countryside, through rolling green expanses, deserted country houses and sweet-smelling bougainvilleas and you spot them straight away: Indian workers in cowsheds, operating milking machines, working as unskilled laborers in dairies, driving milk trucks. Some companies have many Avinders, Singhs and Harjasans on their payroll but very few Ginos and Lucas. The general consensus hereabouts is that the Indian workers have prevented the demise of the parmesan business. Globalization is everywhere, changing the industry and therefore also changing an entire region.

Midday in Novellara, some 45 minutes east of Parma by car. A few old-town streets, arcades, ocher, deep blue, flowerpots on wrought-iron balconies, swallows swooping and diving above terracotta-tiled roofs. All very Italian. Then come the single-family houses, three to four apartment blocks, a main street and finally farmland. In the marketplace, old folks drift from café to café, while young folks sip spritz on ice. Between them, you see mothers pushing strollers, their saris billowing pale pink and pastel green, and men in bright turbans, yellow and blue, checkered shirts and loose pants. All very Indian.

Storekeeper Gianpaolo Orlandini, who has 
30 years of experience in the parmesan business

Storekeeper Gianpaolo Orlandini, who has 
30 years of experience in the parmesan business

© Julia Sellmann
Town with histories of migration: Turban wearers are part of the scenery on the streets on Novellara

Town with histories of migration: Turban wearers are part of the scenery on the streets on Novellara

© Julia Sellmann

  Of the approximately 14 000 inhabitants of this small town, some 2200 come from abroad, one third of them from India. The situation is similar in the neighboring towns. The first restaurant you see on your way into Novellara serves Indian food. The Dhillon Center between the Pasticceria L’Angelo and the Bar Roma sells Asian spices, jingling bangles and golden nose rings. On the outskirts, where the town gives way to fields, an orange flag flutters above some flat-roofed buildings, a secular signpost and the sacred emblem of the second-largest Sikh temple in Europe. A couple of streets further along: its Hindu counterpart, only smaller. Novellara, that’s garam masala with insalata caprese, a combination already commonplace in many major European cities. But here, in the provinces? In a country still racked by the financial crisis, in northern Italy, the home of the nationalist Lega Nord party?

“It’s going very well,” says Elena Carletti, a vigorous woman in square-rimmed glasses and black jacket with a casual tone of voice. She is Novellara’s mayor. Her official residence is a grand, 12th-century mansion right on the marketplace, with dark wooden floors and colorful ceiling frescos. “Of course tensions arise,” Carletti concedes. She has just reorganized the local primary school to improve the mix within the classes. Carletti and her team set up Italian courses for housewives, regularly speak with the heads of the different communities and know how to knot an Indian scarf. In March 2016, Carletti spoke before the Council of Europe about the fundamentals of good integration. “We are improving,” says the 42-year-old. She talks about children who embody Italy far more than their native countries of India and Pakistan; of parents and grandparents who have been the mainstays of the region’s economy, while Italians are moving away; of clubs, the Red Cross, the festival committee, and of disaster control, her pet project: 62 volunteers, 13 of them Indian. In case of emergency, they are prepared.

Singh Sarabjit covers the finished cheeses with cloths before placing wooden weights on top and bringing them into the required shape

Singh Sarabjit covers the finished cheeses with cloths before placing wooden weights on top and bringing them into the required shape

© Julia Sellmann
Still warm, the curd is lifted out of the whey at the Cooperativa San Lorenzo

Still warm, the curd is lifted out of the whey at the Cooperativa San Lorenzo

© Julia Sellmann

  One of Novellara’s potential rescuers is Jagjit Singh, 45 years old and not related to cheesemaker Singh, but also from Punjab. He has been living in Italy since 2001 and is now a kind of surrogate mother to ten calves presently mooing dramatically. In one hand, he holds a yellow pail of cow’s milk, in the other, a calf. Both belong together, but the calf doesn’t understand. Singh has been a cowhand for ten years now at Cooperativa Intercomunale Lavoratori Agricoli (C.I.L.A.), one of the biggest farming associations in the region. It has 3000 cows standing in open sheds as well as a gigantic labyrinth of straw bales and a huge fleet of vehicles. The air is filled with the combined odors of dung, cattle and hay. C.I.L.A. comprises roughly 3000 farms, which supply the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano.

Sixty people work here, nine of them are of Indian origin. Their boss is Maurizio Sassi, 55. He’s the caretaker type with a tendency to give lengthy explanations. Sassi takes us past row on row of cattle. Black, white, on and on. He tells of one workmate, a Hindu, who always blesses the cows before milking them. “I’m afraid the bull got him.” Luckily, he wasn’t badly injured. His Indian coworkers? “They are just really good with the animals.” They are reliable and friendly – and they do the stuff many Italians won’t: muck out, work among the animals, do the milking, Sassi adds. He knows what that’s worth.

Veerendrajet Singh is checking the milk flakes in the kettle

Veerendrajet Singh is checking the milk flakes in the kettle

© Julia Sellmann
A small boy watches his father at work

A small boy watches his father at work

© Julia Sellmann
Everything under control: Milker Singh Gurmeet

Everything under control: Milker Singh Gurmeet

© Julia Sellmann
The milkers' aprons

Colorful: The milkers' aprons

© Julia Sellmann
The quiet and prayer room of a Sikh temple

The quiet and prayer room of a Sikh temple

© Julia Sellmann
Harjasan Singh, whose father came to Italy as a cowhand in 2001

Harjasan Singh, whose father came to Italy as a cowhand in 2001

© Julia Sellmann

  Jagjit Singh collects up the pails. He likes his job, he likes Novellara, he feels well treated here and wants to give something back. Out of the cowsheds and into the community. That’s why he is also a member of the disaster control team. He does want his son, Harjasan, to do other work later on, though: out of the cowsheds and into the office.

Harjasan, a 22-year-old psychology student, spends his days between Italy and India, between the cultures, between auditorium, student parties and religious festivals. He’s the one they call, if someone is needed to give visitors a guided tour of the Sikh temple in Novellara, A low white building in an industrial zone with pillars, strings of colorful lights and arches. Harjasan Singh hands out orange triangles for people to cover their heads. He himself is wearing a turban, John Lennon glasses and the easy smile of the budding young professional. He shows us the ground floor, sinks onto the green linoleum. Old men with long beards serve Indian tea and yellow pastry sticks in metal dishes as snacks. The prayer room is upstairs. Bare walls, soft red carpet, more of a hall than a temple. Women crouch on the left-hand side, men on the right. Children play with Lego cars and dolls. Laid out in the middle is the Sikhs’ holy book before which the families kneel. Talking about his father’s generation, Singh says, “They were glad to be needed.” About his generation he has this to say: “We were born here, speak the language and regard ourselves as Italian.”

Who will take care of the parmesan when his father and all the others of his generation retire? Who will take care of the cows in the sprawling C.I.L.A. cowsheds? Who will keep a watchful eye on the milk flakes in the copper pots at Selvapiana e Canossa? Maybe then it will be the new arrivals from Syria and North Africa landing daily on Italy’s beaches in search if work, security and a new home. Novellara will need them.


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.