Video: Jewish News One

Few people are indifferent when it comes to cheese. It is seen as either the perfect example of artisanal food or as a strange, smelly dairy product best avoided unless it's topping a pizza or hamburger. 

Of course, it’s not really that simple. Cheese has been an important source of protein for centuries. It has a long shelf life and can be produced indefinitely if you have a healthy, milk-producing animal. Where cows aren't readily available, goat's milk is a typical substitute.

However, the world's most expensive and unusual cheese comes from neither cows nor goats. 

Pule cheese (pronounced pullay) is made only in Serbia and fetches the highest price of any cheese on Earth. In 2012, a batch of pule was sold for the “discounted” price of $576 per pound. On the open market, gourmands can expect to pay well over $1,000 per pound. The milk used to make this cheese comes from a very unusual source: the endangered Balkan donkey. 

The process of producing pule is what makes it literally worth its weight in gold. For starters, there are no automated milking machines for donkeys. The animals have to be milked by hand three times per day. They also produce a very small amount of milk; it takes more than 15 donkeys to yield 1 gallon of milk per day, and roughly 3.5 gallons of milk make 1 pound of pule. 

The story behind pule's spike in popularity goes beyond its source. A rumor involving one of Serbia's most famous sons earned the little-known cheese plenty of media buzz in 2012. Tennis star Novak Djokovic was said to have used his tournament winnings to purchase the entire supply of pule — a rumor that later turned out to be false.

Balkan donkeyThe world's supply of pule comes from a herd of Balkan donkeys that live on the Zasavica Special Nature Preserve. Once extensively used as pack animals by rural Serbs, the domesticated donkeys were replaced with modern modes of hauling and slaughtered or turned out during tough economic times. Today, workers at the Zasavica preserve see pule production as a way to promote the conservation of the endangered species.

In addition to cheese, donkey's milk is also an ingredient in beauty products. Ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra is famously said to have used the milk as a skin treatment.

So how exactly does pule taste? A crumbly white cheese, it is known for its intense flavor and natural saltiness. It will likely appeal to cheese aficionados, but for others, a block of cheddar or Swiss from the local supermarket is probably money better spent.

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Photo: Igor Matic/Shutterstock