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Cremona, Anyone?

By Anoothi Vishal

In an Italian cheese town, we discover violins and, well, Punjab.

You wouldn’t find it on usual touristy maps. But should you decide to stop by at Cremona, an ancient town in Italy’s Po river valley, home to some of its best cheeses (as also the Roman poet Virgil, who went to school here), chances are that you will feel quite at home. For one, despite its distinct Continental air, Cremona reminds me, well, strangely enough, of “Main Hoon Na”, the Shahrukh Khan movie.

No, there are no actresses in chiffon shooting here — everyone is well-clad and jacketed-up in the biting winter of northern Italy. And when we do catch strains of music, inevitably inside local bars where Spritz, a student-y concoction made of wine, sparkling water and robust country liqueurs flows freely, it’s not Bollywood. Yet, just like in the spoofy film, there are violins everywhere. And that explains why SRK’s scenes pop up in my head.

Musical history

Cheese apart, Cremona is known for its musical history — home to some of the best-known makers of violins (the violin was invented in Cremona in 1564, according to records), including Stradivari in the 17th century, whose hand-crafted instruments have long been held as the epitomy of perfection around the world. So it is fitting that we see so many violins all around.

The town square has a famous Stradivari statue. Then, there are those luthier shops you are tempted to peep into, still manufacturing and repairing instruments by hand in this electronic age; but, equally, there are violin-shaped chocolates, cookie boxes, not to mention nougat shaped like violins.

Culture, cattle and good food go hand in hand in this Lombardy town, the dairy capital of Italy. Its cheese (the hard and grainy Grana Padano that can sit on top of pasta and the superb Provolone in mild and piccante flavours are special) and ham (the Salame Cremona PGI, with its soft, slightly garlic-flavoured paste, is one of the most famous salami, while the cotechino from here is also highly regarded) feed a million mouths.

I also come across the mostarda di Cremona, a quirky concoction, where mustard seeds are combined with candied fruit! It is a fitting accompaniment to a local meal of boiled meats that comprises local gastronomy. At a restaurant bustling with local families and farmers on a Sunday afternoon, we sit down to a meal of Bollito Misto (mixed boiled meats) — calf’s head, veal tongue, pig foot and cheek are all on the menu — for a ridiculously low price. The meats sit on a trolley that comes rolling to each table and unlimited portions of whatever it is you may wish to sample are judiciously carved out.

Touch of cheese

What can be better than visiting a cheese factory post this? We visit the Auricchio plant nearby, a 120-year-old family managed company, to see tonnes of Provolone being stretched, rested in brine, shaped by hand, aged and packed. And discover Suchcha Singh.

With a lion tattoo inked on his arms and rapid-fire Italian, Suchcha could be just another Cremonese dairy worker. But one look at us and his face creases into a huge smile. He breaks into chaste Punjabi, asking, funnily enough, a Tamil-speaker among us whether she was from Jullander. He is a trifle disappointed when he learns she is not but we are the people from “back home” and that is good enough.

Suchcha is hardly the only son of the soil around. Cheesemaking, apparently, had come to a halt briefly one day, when, some months ago, a “beauty queen from India”— the Italian managers are unable to say who she was — had stopped by to take in the astonishing scale of production. All the lads from Punjab milled around for a dekko — and considering that the dairy industry in Cremona is dependent on them, it was a substantial crowd.

Sikh immigrants have been arriving in Cremona in steady droves for the last two decades. But unlike many other places in the world where such cross-cultural collisions are fraught with tension, in Cremona, they are looked forward to. With local youth having given up farming, it is these workers from India’s own dairy country who are driving the production here.

The region, according to some estimates, produces, about one million tonnes of milk in a year (a tenth of all produced in Italy). Extreme care needs to be taken to ensure steadfastness and quality of supplies what with cheesemaking being an artform here. Indian farm workers, already, used to tending cattle at home, are generally deemed more than fit for the task, putting in 12-hour shifts, working weekends and bringing in extended families and friends into this very Italian circle of work and life.

The region now has ostensibly the biggest Gurdwara in Europe. Though we couldn’t visit it, Gurdwara Kalgirdhar Sahib, inaugurated last August, has been designed, interestingly, by an Italian (Giorgio Mantovani). It is a centre for the community that seems to have seamlessly amalgamated with local life.

As we sit on the high table, nibbling on the big cheese, it would be well to realise the desi twist to it.

(The article appeared in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, on Feb 4, 2012)


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