Donkeys isn’t a village; it’s a secret of sorts. It’s a donkey farm near the tiny village of Kopaçez that you can (and should) only visit by appointment. It didn’t take our guides at We Love Saranda long to figure out that I like doing things that aren’t in the guidebooks or on the typical tourist trail.
Drinking donkey milk, eating donkey cheese, and meeting the Çako clan and their four-legged charges went to the top of my list as soon as the possibility was mentioned.
I was lucky that they managed to arrange a visit at short notice and that the family were so accommodating. Shume faleminderit.
I’ve little by way of history with donkeys. We had one living next-door-but-one for a few years in the village – on their tod, which I now know isn’t great; they do much better if there’s a couple of them.
I might have ridden one once, too. At the seaside. Somewhere. (I had no idea they were as strong as horses twice their size.)
And I’m sure I’ve donated to donkey sanctuaries, those places where old donkeys go to die (they can live to about 35-40 in this part of the world). Hand on heart though, I’ve never been a massive fan.
A donkey is a donkey, right?
For the Çako family, donkeys are the future.
They soon figured out how much they didn’t know. They had to learn about dietary requirements, medicinal treatments, habits, and needs. ‘I’m not a vet,’ Pëllumb told me, ‘but I’ve had to become one.’
Reading everything he could get his hands on, his superficial knowledge of the creature habits of donkeys soon ventured into the realm of encyclopedic. And most importantly, his knowledge was practical and region-specific.
The farm is in a hilly/mountainous region, 800 m above sea level. All their donkeys come from the same area and are well used to the land and the climate. Pëllumb has learned to mix perfumed teas that they spray on the animals every day for the three months of the summer when the mosquitos and horseflies are at their worst. There’s a market in this, I thought to myself. But they’re not there yet.
As with so many rural areas the world over, people left this part of the country. In 1989, the local school had a roll call of 325 pupils; today they have 25. For many, the choice is made for them. Circumstances dictate. But the Çako family are staying put. They’re on a winner here. ‘Life is easier when you have a goal’, Pëllumb told me. ‘It gives you the strength to continue.’
Everyone has a job or many jobs. Pëllumb and Lilo, Lilo’s wife and daughter, and their mam work together to make this dream a reality. They milk and feed the animals, take them up to the slopes for the day to graze, spray them against the flies, clean the stables, and make deliveries, working from 5 am to 10 pm.
It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.
And that’s just the donkeys.
Then there’s the harvest, the vines, the trees and all the regular maintenance work that needs to be done.
It’s healthy work, too. At least they all look healthy. Perhaps because donkey milk is healthy.
Donkey milk is considered a “pharma food” because it has such notable health effects. Research has shown that it can boost immune function, improve circulation, and reduce inflammation in lab studies. It may even reduce symptoms of type II diabetes.
It tastes nothing like cow’s milk. It has none of the creaminess, with lower fat than breast milk. [One study I found shows how donkey milk used to replace milk for mums who aren’t lactating proved better than bovine milk.] There’s a thinness to it, too.
Retailing at €50 a litre, I savoured the cold glass I was given. Your average donkey will give about 500 ml of milk a day when they’re not pregnant so there’s a limit to what’s available.
When we rocked up, having walked the winding path from the village, we were greeted at the gate and welcomed like old friends.
I’ve said this before about this trip and have come to realise the importance of getting your guides right. If your guide respects the culture, the people, and the place, and has a genuine interest in those they’re taking you to meet, then you will be accepted as a visitor rather than a tourist. It makes a huge difference. Kudos to We Love Saranda for nailing it.
We sat down outside for a chat. Pëllumb was more than happy to answer a litany of questions, each answer begetting another question. The man has endless patience. While we chatted, the three ladies – three generations – set the table. The food kept coming. And coming. And coming.
Cream cheeses (made from both donkey milk and goat’s milk), break, fërgesë, gjizë, artichoke hearts, lokuma – and the bread! You can’t forget the bread. It was delicious. And filling. And way too much. I’ve not yet figured out whether the Albanian appetite that’s huge or their hospitality… perhaps both.
They’ve no plans to modernise. They’ll stay with the hand-milking and as the drove grows in size, they’ll hire in and add to the team. And it’s this naturalness that makes this place special, otherworldly even.
Each donkey, or mam and foal, has their spot in the stable. When mam is being milked, she has to be able to see her foal. There’s no moving. No room hopping. They like a place they can call their own.
Each jack services three to four jennetts a year – the ladies take it in turns, once every three years or so. Gestation is about 12-14 months, so it’s a long pregnancy. Everything is carefully planned so that the farm doesn’t go a single day without some jennett producing milk. Mams split their milk 50/50 – with half going to the foal and half to the farm.
It’s a bit of a lottery. Obviously, if the milk is where the money is, the lads would prefer baby girls. Usually, it falls 50/50. This year though, of the six foals born, five were boys. They’ll be sold on, eventually, as the siring jack is brought in from outside, a new one every three or four years.
Donkeys are smart and incredibly friendly animals. They’re very sociable beings. And they remember. And just as Pëllumb can tell which donkey is braying by their, well, bray, they, too register sound. They file away voices and smells. Péter, our guide, was delighted when a foal he’d met shortly after it was born, came straight over to say hi.
Seeing Pëllumb and his family interact with their charges (did you know a donkey can see all four legs at once?) was heartwarming. Therapeutic even.
They all have names, named according to their features. And they know them all.
I squeezed in a few hugs myself and let my imagination go wild with thoughts of heading to the hills with the drove, protecting them from wolves, and carrying an antidote just in case a snake hit its mark.
And yes, I’m romanticising what is in reality hard work.
I was curious to know how much I’d have to drink and for how long to feel the benefits of donkey milk. So much depends on age and gender, apparently. For a woman of my vintage, maybe 100 ml twice a day every day for a month.
The magic lies in the fact that while I might be taking it, say, to cure lactose intolerance, it’ll be busy curing all sorts of other stuff I didn’t even know was wrong: gastro, auto-immune, allergies, liver/kidney issues, diabetes, stress – the list seems endless. ‘Take it for the problem you know of,’ advises Pëllumb, ‘and benefit all over.’ A litre will last 5-7 days in the fridge. Stored at 0-4 deg C, it’ll keep for 21 days.
Word is getting out. They have many return customers and regularly send deliveries to Tirana and further afield. Down the road, they’re looking at soaps and creams and such, which will further harness the goodness of the milk.
How could I have forgotten that Cle0patra was on to a good thing when she bathed in asses milk? And she wasn’t alone.
It is generally believed that ass milk effaces wrinkles in the face, renders the skin more delicate, and preserves its whiteness: and it is a well-known fact, that some women are in the habit of washing their face with it seven times daily, strictly observing that number. Poppaea, the wife of the Emperor Nero, was the first to practice this; indeed, she had sitting-baths, prepared solely with ass milk, for which purpose whole troops of she- asses used to attend her on her journeys.
If you’re a foodie, go for the food.
If you’re into the potential of agrotourism and want ideas, this initiative has caught the eye of the EU for Innovation #ChallengeFund.
If you’re simply into donkeys or want a hug, then it’s a must.
Talk to We Love Saranda and they’ll set it up. It’s a glorious way to spend a few hours.
This glimpse of lives being lived in rural Albania was one of the highlights of our trip. I felt as if the clock had stopped and I’d left behind the mania of twenty-first-century urban living for a while. It’s the stuff memories are made of.