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London - Over the holidays we learnt the astonishing news that the world’s newest and most expensive cheese actually comes from the hind legs of a donkey.
And if the prospect of paying thousands of rands for a dollop of curdled ass’s milk is not bizarre enough, so too is the possibility that the entire world’s supply might end up in the hands of one of the world’s greatest tennis players. As a proud cheeseaholic, I have to say that discovering the most expensive cheese on the planet comes from a donkey is rather like being told the world’s most expensive wine is made of rhubarb. And can any cheese be worth almost R14 000 a kilo?
The world’s only donkey cheese factory is on a nature reserve along the Zasavica river near the Bosnian border. It was set up by MP-turned-conservationist Slobodan Simic.
A year ago, Simic had the idea of donkey cheese. Two months ago the first samples were ready and Simic and his team were thrilled with the results. The local media named it pule – “little donkey”.
Since the story broke, Simic has had requests from Switzerland, Austria, Israel and Malaysia.
And the verdict? Unwrapped from its elaborate presentation box – bearing the no-nonsense title Donkey Cheese – each 50g piece is roughly the size of a decent pork pie and sells for more than R600. Sliced, it is slightly firmer and less crumbly than its goat counterpart.
As for smell, it is reassuringly pongy, reminiscent of a strong sheep’s cheese, perhaps, but nowhere near the sewagey munificence of a sweaty Epoisse or a Stinking Bishop from Gloucestershire .
According to Simic, donkey cheese is best served in thin slices on its own. In just six weeks the average dairy cow can produce more milk than this entire farm of 130 donkeys can generate in a year.
No wonder Cleopatra needed a pack of 700 donkeys just to run a bath of her fabled ass’s milk.
In fact it requires 25 litres of donkey milk to make one kilo of cheese. Which helps explain why no one has ever bothered producing it – until a few months ago. It also helps explain why it instantly shot to the top of the cheese-price league table, easily overtaking R8 700 or so a kilo for Swedish moose cheese. Simic also produces a R350 pot of donkey face cream – “it turns the granny into the young lady” – and R55 bars of donkey milk soap.
Hippocrates, often described as the father of medicine, was using donkey milk to heal wounds and snakebites in the 5th century BC. Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, would wash her face in it seven times a day. And until the 20th century, hospitals across Europe would keep a donkey or two on standby to provide milk for babies whose mothers could not provide it themselves.
For it is said to be the closest thing to human breast milk, has precious little fat compared with cow’s milk and is particularly rich in the omega 3 and omega 6 acids found in oily fish.
Many parents and doctors have found it’s perfect for children with allergies, while others swear by its restorative powers for people with asthma and eczema.
Simic is now diverting most of his milk into cheese production.
I have no doubt that there will be some people who are happy to pay caviar prices to have donkey cheese sprinkled on their rocket salad or served au natural. But they are going to have to wait a long time if they want the full Cleopatra. – Daily Mail