Catherine Baron dit Faveron, founder of the French natural cosmetics brand Calinesse, came across the amazing properties of donkey’s milk quite by chance.“I was on vacation in the South of France in 2005 and staying at a small bed and breakfast, where the owners had put out soaps made with donkey’s milk by an artisanal soap maker in Marseilles for guests to use,” she recalls.
That difference is the reason why donkey’s milk was such a coveted substance through the ages, and why it was valued by kings, queens and ordinary people for its extraordinary health and beauty properties. Legend has it that Cleopatra, the great queen of Antiquity, favored bathing in donkey’s milk. The Greeks and the Romans believed it was a powerful elixir for health and strength, while the fashionable “Elegantes” of 19th Century France liked to dab it on their cheeks to soften and whiten their skin.
Donkey’s milk nourished many a French orphan, too, but after the advent of the industrial revolution, when machines replaced donkeys for pulling, ploughing and transporting, the animal that had once been ubiquitous in most of Europe and many other parts of the world faded into relative oblivion, its milk also more or less forgotten about and relegated to the realm of myth and folklore.Baron, however, was so taken up with the soap that she immediately went to meet the Marseilles soap maker, persuading him to supply her with his products. She first began selling the soaps made with donkey’s milk in Switzerland, where she lived at the time, and then in her native France.
Today, Calinesse offers a range of soaps, creams and lotions for both women and babies, all of which are made with donkey’s milk and have become incredibly popular both in Europe and in various countries across the globe. The number of artisan soap makers in France working with donkey’s milk has also increased, but Pierluigi Orunesu, founder of Swiss company Eurolactis—Calinesse’s main supplier of donkey’s milk and the only company in the world with a vertically integrated supply chain focused exclusively on the production of donkey’s milk—believes the donkey milk renaissance is only just beginning.
Orunesu, whose company owns around 910 donkeys and produces close to 60,000 liters of donkey milk per year, is at the forefront of a movement that not only extolls the extraordinary dietary and cosmetic properties of donkey’s milk, but also aims to raise the animal’s profile in modern day Europe.“I’m originally from Sardinia where there are tons of donkeys,” he says. “Donkeys are a part of tradition, but when we are small, we don’t understand the importance of the animal and all that we can do with it.”