By Alexia Evripidou
With his two farms in Skarinou, Pieris Georgiadis has got the donkey market covered. He is, quite simply, Cyprus’ donkey man.
From tourism to education, from beauty to health, he is cleverly realising the potential of the humble donkey.
“Why am I in this business? Firstly I love donkeys; I want to protect them. In order to do so, I need to find money to feed them,” he says.
His business, which started out by offering group donkey rides mostly to tourists, has expanded in recent years as the health and beauty benefits of donkey milk became known. Georgiadis now leads the way in Cyprus in the production of donkey milk products such as donkey milk, cosmetics, chocolates and even donkey milk liqueur. His army of donkeys now numbers around 200 and each of them has a name.
In the process, he has combined his affection for this ancient beast of burden with its commercial potential and its long association with Cyprus.
Nothing quite says Cyprus like a postcard or other kitsch tourist memorabilia featuring a donkey, as synonymous with this country as halloumi.
Donkeys are much more than simply ‘wish you were heres’; they are an integral part of Cyprus’ history. They were heroes of World War I with their Cypriot Muleteers; carrying heavy supplies and the injured or deceased. They’ve carried many a bride to be. Even more importantly, donkeys were the backbone of the country’s farming industry before technology made them redundant. The humble donkey has in fact been used globally as a working animal for at least 5000 years.
Jump forward to recent Cypriot history and the 1000 odd wild donkeys rambling the Karpasia Peninsula, serve as further reminders of the 1974 invasion when Greek Cypriot farmers were forced to abandon their flock to save their lives. Caring for donkeys began at a young age for Georgiades, in Famagusta, where his grandfather and father kept donkeys. With donkeys as part of everyday life now virtually obsolete, but with a sentimental fondness for the country’s four legged friends, Pieris took it upon himself to create a home for these neglected animals and built the first of his two farms, Dipotamos Donkey Farm in Skarinou in 2002. Here he offered and still does, group donkey rides in the countryside during the summer months, followed by a traditional Cypriot banquet for curious tourists. Being only a seasonal business, Georgiades was forced to think of something else to generate revenue for the rest of the year.
At first, he was unaware of the benefits donkey milk boasted. By 2012, when he opened his second venture, the Golden Donkey farm, he knew differently.
“Donkey’s milk is a present from nature; it supplies us with so many health giving properties,” says Georgiades. “It contains the enzyme lysozeme, which is anti-bacterial and can protect against intestinal infections. The milk is full of proteins for the skin, which is why Cleopatra used to bathe in it. It’s also full of antibodies.” It is estimated that 700 donkeys contributed milk daily for those famous baths.
He has enlisted the assistance of TEPAK (Cyprus University of Technology) for ongoing research into the health giving properties of donkey’s milk.
Dr Photis Papademas, lecturer in dairy science states “from what they say, they’ve had some remarkable results, especially children with asthma or coughs and for some with eczema and psoriasis. Now we’ll try to get a clinical study going on the adults to see if this milk really is as promising as it looks. We know already that traditionally it was used by people just a few generations ago to treat whooping cough in young children.”
It seems humans and donkeys have more in common than expected; for starters, we both share a single stomach. However, we mostly drink the milk of multi-stomached animals such as cows and goats, which use a lot of bacteria to digest their food through a complicated fermentation process. However, donkey milk is very close to human milk in composition and also contains protective anti-bacterial agents; one of which “seems to be maybe 200 times more active than in cow’s milk”, says Dr Papademas. This might explain why donkey’s milk appears to be particularly free of germs. International research also suggests that it has low saturated fat content and high levels of omega three and six; the nutrients found in oily fish, hence can help lower cholesterol.
Donkey milk is no ‘new kid on the block’. As far back as 460 BC ‘the father of medicine’ Hippocrates prescribed donkey milk for anything from fevers, liver troubles, poisoning, nose bleeds and wounds. Ancient Greeks would feed their children it and up until the 19th century in the UK, donkey milk was widely sold as an alternative to breast milk.
So why is it not in the local supermarkets already? In Europe, the milk is sold at around €70 per litre. Pieris sells it, orders only, at €24 to try and facilitate people’s pockets.
Donkey milk is not that easy to produce. A donkey only has two teats, rather than a cow’s four, and milking only produces about a litre a day per animal – a cow can produce more than 10 times that. What’s more, a donkey can only be milked for about seven months after producing a foal, and even then only when the foal is close by. It’s a complicated business.
“Donkeys are pregnant for 12 months. We then have to wait for two months, as the foal needs to take all the milk first. Then we can take half of the milk but the priority always goes to the foal. The donkeys rest for three months whilst they mate,” explains Georgiades.
All in all, they can collect milk for approximately seven months and then the donkey ‘rests’ for 17 months during pregnancy, feeding and mating period. Currently he produces 6-8 litres a day. Pieris aims to have full production within two years, when all the foals are grown up and altogether are able to produce 50 litres a day.
Donkey milk alone is currently not profitable and that’s why Georgiades has branched out in to donkey milk products which are believed to relieve skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis.
He works with a Cypriot company which produces cosmetics and soaps with as much as 30 per cent donkey milk such as night creams, day creams, face serums, bubble bath, hand and body cream (which is surprisingly absorbent).
“No one puts such a high percentage of donkey milk in their cosmetics in the world,” says Pieris. He’s also started making organic olive oil, organic olive leaf teas, carob sugar, and carob tea. They already have a market in Europe and America for the olive tea. All will become available in selected chemists here by next month.
The Golden Donkey Farm is much more than a commercial enterprise. It has been created as a tourist attraction. Visitors can wander around the farm which also houses a small donkey museum, reconstructed typical village house and herb garden. A small chapel will soon be available for weddings and christenings. The gift shop sells many donkey-themed items plus all the food and beauty products produced by the farm, except the milk which is by order only.
The farm also offers educational packages for schools. In addition to learning about the history of the donkey, children are told about olive production.
The farms are open seven days a week, with a small entrance €3 fee. For further information: http://www.ktima.podserver.info/en/
Ancient trees and stones
After he bought the land for the Golden Donkey farm, Pieris Georgiades discovered that he was also the proud owner of one of the oldest olive trees in Cyprus, around 1500 years old. The tree has pride of place near the entrance to the farm.
They also discovered around 200,000 flat faced stones, which had been previously used for buildings in the old village.
Curious, Georgiades enquired into the area discovering that in the 12th century the area experienced a gruesome battle. Members of the Lusignan dynasty fought amongst local Cypriots against invading Arab troops. The battle was bloody; killing its entire population and everything that could combust was set alight. The story goes that not a single stone remained on top of another stone. The area was given the name ‘Memila’, from the Greek words ‘no speaking’ reflecting a village where not a living soul remained. Georgiades has used these historic stones to build the church, museum and other buildings on the farm.