One of the World's Most Expensive Cheeses Comes from Rescued Donkeys
Part of the high price tag? A trip to Serbia.
Slobodan Simić is much more interested in reading my energy than talking about donkey cheese. Simić, 67 years old and a former member of the Serbian parliament, has shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and piercing blue eyes. As soon as we sit down in the restaurant attached to his donkey farm, located 50 miles west of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, he pulls out a one-inch metal obelisk and lets it hang from a thin chain. He points his index finger at me and concentrates on the movement of the obelisk, as it swings in various directions like a metronome gone mad.
His long-time friend, former police chief, and white-mustached Wilford Brimley lookalike Jovan Vukadinović sidles up to the table with some rakia for all of us, the gut-melting fruit brandy that is ubiquitous in the Balkans. "He's crazy," said Vukadinović, pointing to Simić who is still concentrating on my energy. "Whenever he has an idea, I say nothing. And I just let him do it because usually he's right. As he was right with this latest idea."
This latest "crazy" idea in question was to make cheese. But not just any cheese. A delicacy that is often repeated as the most expensive cheese on the planet. Donkey Cheese may sound like a college town alternative rock band circa 1995, but it's a real thing. At least at Zasava Nature Reserve. In fact, it's the only place on the planet you can acquire this creamy jackass snack.
It all started when Slobodan began rescuing mistreated Balkan donkeys from farms in 1997 and placing them in the Zasavica Nature Reserve. There are now 300 asses on the farm. "I began making products with donkey milk — everything from soap to moisturizer to donkey milk-infused rakia," he said, looking up from his swinging energy-reading obelisk. Donkey milk has long been revered in the Balkans, as people seek it out for its apparent health benefits. It is believed to be an immune booster as well as to be good for the skin. So much so that Cleopatra famously took daily baths in donkey milk. Hippocrates supposedly drank it to ease his arthritis. Simić tells me that donkey milk and human milk have very similar characteristics and that if a new (human) mother is having problems producing breast milk, doctors recommend feeding the new child donkey milk. (No word, though, if the child's first word is "hee-haw!")
"We'd usually end up with extra milk," adds Simić, "and so one day a few years ago I had this idea: why not make cheese with it?"
And so he did. It starts by having to milk the 20 or so donkeys that are producing at any given time. The jennies, as female donkeys are called, are milked by hand three times daily. On average, a jenny produces nearly a gallon of milk per day, compared to a cow whose average daily production is about 15 gallons. Ultimately, it takes 6.6 gallons of donkey milk to produce 2.2 pounds of cheese.
In addition to donkeys yielding so little latte, the other problem is that donkey milk lacks the protein casein that helps milk to coagulate, so he needed to come up with an out-of-the-box idea to create the cheese. "Because this was a crazy scheme," he says, taking a puff from his tobacco pipe, "I had to look for other crazy people." He found one in the form of a Belgrade-based scientist named Stevan Marinković who had been studying donkey milk. They came up with a process that includes 60 percent donkey milk, 40 percent goats milk, some rennet, and a secret concoction of additives. The cheese then remains in the mold for 24 hours before aging for a month.
"The result is this," says Simič, unfolding a golden pyramid-shaped box that says "Donkey Cheese" on the front. A minute later, the golf ball-sized chunk of cheese — which costs about $50—was on a plate along with some donkey sausage. They don't slaughter the donkeys here for their meat. But, as Simić tells me, "If a male donkey becomes too aggressive, he's going to be sausage tomorrow."
A server puts down a glass of white Serbian-made Tamjanika wine for me — Simić claims its crisp, citrusy flavor profile makes it the best vino to pair with the cheese. I stab a small piece of the magareći sir, or donkey cheese, with a toothpick and plop it on my waiting palate. The cheese is semi-soft and clean tasting with nicely balanced notes of sweetness, saltiness, and an aroma of fresh grass.
Donkey cheese isn't one of the most expensive cheeses in the world because of its flavor. It's pricey simply because the low yield of milk that donkeys produce makes it very rare. The cheese, for those interested and curious, goes for about $1,000 for about two-thirds of a pound. (We should note that the actual most expensive cheese on the planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is a blue cheese from Asturias, Spain called Cabrales — about $11,000 per kilogram.) But as of now, you also have to come to the donkey farm in Serbia yourself to get it. If the lure of tasting this singular cheese isn't enough to get you here, maybe it's the other indirect (and questionable) benefits of the cheese. Donkey cheese, Simić claims, is a natural aphrodisiac.
Ultimately, Simić has high hopes for his cheese. "We want it to become the most prestigious cheese in the world," he says. And then he puts away his energy measuring tool, takes another hit of his pipe, and looks down at the now empty plate in front of me that was once filled with donkey cheese. "Your appetite is as excellent as your energy."