August 2, 2022 Akshanth Gunda

Margherita – A pizza, a queen and Assam

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What connects a savoury pizza, a dreamy little mining town in Assam and a flamboyant Queen? This bewildering connection traces its origins back to 19th century Italy. 

Queen Margherita of Savoy was crowned the Queen consort of the Kingdom of Italy in 1878. Margherita took over as the first lady of Italy right after getting married because there wasn’t a queen.

The relationship between her and the King was not a pleasant one but as a Queen, she worked to protect the monarchy against republicans and socialists and became quite an icon for Italian nationalists. 

Through her social and charitable endeavours, Queen Margherita established Florence’s first library for the blind and was a frequent visitor to and supporter of hospitals, schools, and institutions for children. 

A widespread belief says when the Queen visited Naples, she wanted to try something new. One of the chefs, Raffaele Esposito, invented a special savoury pizza to please the queen. 

Pizza was typically consumed by the poor in the late 19th century since it was not yet a popular dish and allowed them to use up numerous materials that would otherwise go waste. In Naples at the time, Esposito was regarded as the best pizza maker.

Esposito and his wife eventually succeeded in creating a pizza containing tomato(red), mozzarella (white) and basil (green) representing the colours of its Italian flag, and named the dish after Queen Margherita herself. 

The legend goes, although pizzas with comparable toppings existed before, they gained enduring fame because of Queen Margherita, who after trying such pizza for the first time, was so impressed that she wrote Esposito a letter praising his creation. 

Around 1881, a few years before the epic pizza tale, Robert Piercy and three Italian engineers, the Paganini brothers, landed in Calcutta and travelled to Dibrugarh. They came for the Dibru-Sadiya Railway project, as engineers.

At that time, a part of the Tinsukia district was a coal and oil mining concession given to Assam Railways and Trading business. One of the company’s most important stakeholders was the seasoned engineer Benjamin Piercy.

A few years ago, his brother Robert Piercy worked on a railway construction project in Sardinia alongside three of the Paganini brothers. For the Assam railway project, the company hired the same team of engineers.

While Piercy set up his headquarters in Dibrugarh, the elder brother Cevalier Roberto Paganini established quarters for himself and other engineers in the forests on the banks of the Dihing river around the Makum area.

In January 1884, it is believed that, either the settlement was named as a tribute to Roberto Paganini or Roberto Paganini himself named the hamlet ‘Margherita’ as a mark of his patriotism and respect for the  reigning Queen. 

Today Margherita is a tranquil, scenic town surrounded by hills, tea gardens, and forests – thriving as a lasting tribute to the Italian Queen consort and the Italian engineer who gave them the railway connecting either side of the river. 

Sources:

  • bcmtouring.com
  • India Against Itself
  • Assam and the Politics of Nationality
  • By Professor of Political Studies Sanjib Baruah, Sanjib Baruah, Wikipedia commons, India Rail Info.

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