In Sicily, selective breeding practiced by farmers over the centuries has resulted in hardy breeds that are well suited to free-range grazing and able to survive the most difficult and arid periods. These animals produce high quality milk and flavorsome meat, but as they are less productive than modern breeds they are at great risk of extinction today. Consuming the quality cheeses that are made from their milk, or their meat, supports the farmers that are their guardians today and is a great way to save them!

Ragusano Donkey


In the past, donkeys were an important part of country life, and up until 30 or 40 years ago it was common to see donkeys transporting heavy loads, powering millstones or pulling plows. In Sicily, in particular, native breeds like the Siciliana or Pantesca (or the Pantelleria donkey, of which only 100 remain) were interbred, or sometimes bred with the Martina Franca donkey or the Catalan donkey.

The Ragusano donkey is one of the youngest breeds, and it was only in 1953 that the Catania Institute of Horse Breeding managed to identify its defining characteristics. The Ragusano has a dark reddish-brown coat with a light stomach, a gray muzzle with smooth fur and a black mane and tail. The head is fairly small, with a straight profile. The forehead is wide and flat, the eyes are large and circled with white fur, and it has straight, medium-long ears, a wide rump and strong limbs.

Like most of the other local donkey breeds, the Ragusano is at risk of extinction today, with around just 1,000 remaining. Donkeys live for much longer than horses, and can live for up to 45 years.

While using donkeys to undertake agricultural work may no longer be economically viable, they have another lesser-known use: their milk is very similar to human milk and in the past was used to substitute mother’s milk for babies when needed. A scientific study has shown that 5-10% of babies will have intolerances to cow’s milk in their first months. Soya milk is often suggested as an alternative, but the average content of casein and albumin found in donkey’s milk is similar to that of human milk. It also has a pleasant flavor because it is rich in lactose (which also promotes the intestinal absorption of calcium by stimulating bone mineralization in the first months of life).

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