MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used it on wounds. Cleopatra supposedly bathed in it. We're talking about donkey milk. Of course we are. This elixir is now the base for everything from skin creams to chocolate to baby milk in Europe. Joanna Kakissis went to one of its sources in Serbia.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Slobodan Simic is 62, a retired Serbian lawmaker in dark glasses and a leather jacket chomping on a tobacco pipe.
KAKISSIS: Hello, I'm Joanna. Nice to meet you.
We meet at the Zasavica wetlands where he says he runs the largest donkey farm in Eastern Europe.
SLOBODAN SIMIC: (Speaking Serbian).
KAKISSIS: "Jesus rode to Jerusalem on a donkey," he proclaims. "Ours is the Balkan donkey, and I want to preserve it."
About 20 years ago, Simic began taking in underfed Balkan donkeys that industrialization had made obsolete. He now has 200.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE RATTLING)
KAKISSIS: Zasavica manager Jovan Vukadinovic opens a gate to a stall where female donkeys, snuggled with their foals, are quietly eating hay.
JOVAN VUKADINOVIC: If we separate the babies from mothers, no milk, no lactation.
KAKISSIS: The farmers only milk the mothers after the foals have nursed. And since the female donkeys only produce about two quarts a day, there's not much left. So it's really expensive. Vukadinovic wanted to cash in.
VUKADINOVIC: We started to milk them and sell the milk because that is medicine - 60 times more C vitamin than is in a lemon, for example. And that is almost similar with a mother's milk.
KAKISSIS: It's not an easy sell. Translator Julkica Djurdjevic said she told herself...
JULKICA DJURDJE: You can spill it out if you don't like it. But for me, it was tasting good.
KAKISSIS: She talks me and Serbian journalist Darko Jevtic into sharing a glass.
It's, like, sweet. It tastes a little bit like almond milk.
VUKADINOVIC: Like (unintelligible) it's sweet.
KAKISSIS: Yes, it's really nice. You want to try it, Darko?
DARKO JEVTIC: It's really sweet. It's not like cow's milk.
KAKISSIS: It's much pricier. A cup costs about $9. Still, a Swiss-Italian donkey milk company called Eurolactis is finding customers. Its founder, Pierluigi Christophe Orunesu, spoke to NPR on Skype. He mainly sells freeze-dried donkey milk powder.
PIERLUIGI CHRISTOPHE ORUNESU: We are the first in Switzerland to have made donkey milk chocolate bar. And we have also launched a kind of Nutella with donkey milk without palm oil.
KAKISSIS: What Eurolactis does not sell is donkey milk cheese. That's a little too high end at more than $560 a pound.
That has not stopped Slobodan Simic, the Serbian donkey farmer, from producing it. But if you want to taste this crumbly, lightly salty cheese, you have to traipse to the Serbian bog. Serbia's agriculture ministry will not allow its export. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis at the Zasavica wetlands in Serbia.
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