Abruzzese Jenny © Pete Austin
My love for donkeys started in Abruzzo, Italy when I was 8 years old. Grandpa had a working donkey, Bello, which he used to pull his small cart. In 1948 donkeys were a popular, inexpensive alternative to horses, all one had to do is feed them well and it seemed to make them happy. My grandpa would walk along the donkey cart as I rode in it like an American princess being driven around to meet my Italian relatives. Bello was my companion for the summer; neither of us understood Italian but I swear he understood my English even if raised in Italy!
It is sad that donkeys, the working animals of the horse kingdom, get little kudos for the 5000 years of providing man with inexpensive agricultural power, second only to human labor. Somewhere along the way this animal, so renowned for its steadfastness & loyalty, and way less neurotic than the horse, has been stereotyped as stubborn and insignificant. From its role carrying the wounded or heavy loads (often explosive!) in WW1 to its ongoing and vital contribution in third world countries, the humble donkey is part of a noble tradition that is all too often undervalued in western society.
Abruzzo Depended on the Donkey for Survival
As an agricultural region that experienced generations of famine and poverty, Abruzzo depended on the donkey for survival. Not everyone had a donkey but families that could afford one were sure to have this work animal to transport people and products, as well as powering the mills at a time when gas & electricity were not financially viable. Cheap labour, low maintenance, and ultimately when their years of productive value were over a source of nourishment for the family during times of austerity.
Italians consumes more horse meat than any other country in Europe. I knew that, but only recently ascertained that it could very well be donkey meat. In other countries where donkeys are considered domestic pets it is hard to accept them being used as a source of meat. But in times of misery and famine when it was a way of surviving, the custom of eating donkey meat in Abruzzo as well as in other parts of Italy, commenced. With other meats available and a somewhat more favorable economy donkey meat is no longer popular in Abruzzo. The Abruzzese commonly served donkey meat in a sausage form that could be stored for the winter.
Increasingly popular in Italy today is donkey milk, along with allied products such as creams and soaps. It is very expensive considering that the Jenny (female) milked 6 times a day provides about a litre to 2 litres compared to the 15 litres the average cow could produce. Donkey milk cheeses are also gaining in popularity, despite the inevitable high price!
Donkeys – A Children’s Treat in Abruzzo
While visiting relatives in Introdacqua in Abruzzo, I was surprised to find a donkey farm, La Locanda dell’asino. That called for a visit to see Bello’s relatives. The Locanda provides a variety of activities for visitors. Besides eight beautiful bedrooms available as a B&B, they have a restaurant, classes for children and adults, arts & crafts, a donkey library, and donkey products for sale. For groups of 10 or more there is trekking with the donkeys, a wonderful experience that called for several return visits, and watching the donkeys being fed, milked and walked. I loved seeing the joy on the faces of little ones able to ride the donkeys.
On one particular visit to our house in Abruzzo my husband and I particularly enjoyed a focaccia class with youngsters making their own lunch after trekking with the donkeys. Mothers and teachers helped the children and an employee cooked the focaccia in a wood-burning pizza oven. It was wonderful to see this activity. But the most rewarding experience was seeing how donkeys are called to work with special needs children. On one occasion we observed one of the helpers, a special needs child himself, help care for the donkeys. It was so rewarding to see this encounter that I wish more would support this great location in Abruzzo. Come Easter time the loyal donkey begins their season of making children and adults happy.
More info: La Locanda dell’Asino d’Oro
Official website: http://www.locandadellasinodoro.com/