From mice to Wallace and Gromit, everyone loves cheese. Available in all sorts of shapes and sizes, almost any dish can be improved with a sprinkling of the world’s favourite dairy product. Whether it’s stringy mozzarella, tangy feta or pungent stilton, every culture has their own favourite flavours, and each has produced stunning varieties.
By and large, though production methods may differ greatly for each individual cheese, most produce comes from the same three animals - sheep, goats and cattle. While, theoretically, you can make cheese from any mammal, these three domesticated stalwarts produce by far the most milk, making manufacture significantly more straightforward. It would seem natural, therefore, that the most expensive cheese in the world would be created from one of these three creatures. In fact the most high-end dairy product available comes from a truly surprising source - Balkan donkeys.
Known as pule, this top of the range cheese is produced exclusively in Serbia. Though the concept of donkey cheese may seem off-putting to some, the product is described as having a crumbly texture and a deliciously nutty flavour, similar to Spanish manchego. However, when it comes to price, there is a world of difference. One kilo of pule will set you back over $1,000. The equivalent weight of cheddar, by contrast, will cost about $13.
This cheese ain’t cheap.
There are many reasons for such an exorbitant price tag. Perhaps the most significant is just how difficult pule is to procure. Compared to the main dairy animals, donkeys produce a miniscule amount of milk. A single jenny yields between 1.5-2 litres of milk per day, where the average cow can produce 60 litres.
Even once you have harvested a significant amount of milk, the technical side of the process is near impossible to master. Due to the lack of casein (the substance that helps make milk solid) within donkey milk, much more of the milk is required to produce even a small amount of the cheese. About 25 litres of donkey milk will give you one litre of pule. This highlights just how labour intensive the process is.
So technically tricky is the challenge of pule manufacture, that there is currently only one farm on earth where the cheese is produced. This, again, helps to explain its extraordinarily high price. Slobodan Simic, based in Zasavica, about 60 miles outside of Belgrade, is the proud owner of a herd of about 300 endangered Balkan donkeys and currently responsible for the entire world’s pule supply. He claims to be the only man alive who knows how to manufacture the cheese.
Despite the secretive and almost mystical nature of the process, pule is known to be an extremely healthy product. The cheese is renowned for its anti-allergen properties, contains more than 60 times the vitamin C of cow’s milk and is just 1% fat. It’s little wonder, therefore, that Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic is rumoured to have bought the entire world’s supply in 2014.
For all the powers of pule, it seems as though the cheese is destined to remain exclusively available to the super rich for quite some time. Given how tricky it is to produce and how small the manufacturing operation is, it seems the rest of us will have to make do with cheddar for the time being. For anyone not overly enamored by the idea of milking donkeys, this is probably a relief.