Courtesy Karine Gambier
November 30, 2012
Cleopatra bathed in it. It’s said that Nero’s second wife Poppea indulged in it too, and so did France’s king François I and Napoleon’s Josephine. The beatific benefits of asses’ milk are legendary. But the supply was never great—after all, a donkey produces less than one quart of milk a day compared to a cow’s 30 or so—and over the centuries milk from the humble donkey fell out of cosmetic fashion.
Then a few years ago, while on location in Egypt, former television production manager Karine Gambier decided it was time that asses’ milk staged a comeback. Gambier had been working in television and film for some ten years, including stints behind the scenes on the coverage for the 1998 Soccer World Cup in France and channel France 3’s documentary travel programs Thalassa and Des Racines et des Ailes. It was while on location in Luxor for Des Racines et des Ailes that the germ of an idea was first planted in her head.
As she explains, “I knew about the Cleopatra legend, about her bathing in asses’ milk. A few years later I saw some shampoo that used donkey’s milk and I thought ‘Wow, it exists!’ I had always been into cosmetics, I was a big consumer, and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do—only better.”
A few years earlier she had bought a farm in the Ardèche, and she realized the place was perfect for rearing donkeys. She bought a jenny—a female donkey—and her two-month old foal. She named the jenny Boutchou, an affectionate nickname that literally means “little cabbage”. Gambier had never milked a donkey before, and Boutchou had never before been milked, so at first, things were a bit tricky. “She wasn’t used to the human touch, and it took her while to realize that I didn’t mean her any harm.”
Asses’ milk is rich in vitamins, specifically A, B1, B2, B6, C, D and E, along with minerals and trace elements including iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. High in lactose and low in fat, it is said to be the closest thing to human breast milk and reputedly has considerable regenerative powers. But because it comes in such small quantities it is expensive.
Once she had the supply organized, Gambier looked for a laboratory to manufacture her organic asses’ milk cosmetics. “I insisted that the milk was used fresh or frozen, rather than powdered,” she explains, “and it was difficult to find a lab that would accept that. I was also dealing in such small quantities that it was laughable.” Eventually she teamed up with a laboratory in Lyon, and then it was a matter of trial and error to find exactly what she was looking for in the texture, the smell and the feel of the creams. “I wanted to make a cream for dry skin that wasn’t greasy,” she says. “The products were designed according to my personal tastes. A lot of people didn’t like the smell of the organic creams that were around at the time—they were too overpowering. So I tried to produce something subtle, something refined, that would appeal to women who were used to luxury products.”
She named her new line of potions Anakae— “an” for ânesse, female donkey in French, and “ka” for Karine. At first it was a question of touting her samples around the local organic shops. “I was quite persuasive,” she says with a smile. Little by little the Anakae range began to take shape and eventually retailers began contacting her. Today her products include a day cream that is 20% organic donkey’s milk, a night cream, a body milk, a makeup remover, a soap, and a bath milk that won the Salon Beauté Spa de Montréal’s Prix de l’Innovation in 2008.
All of Gambier’s products use pure ingredients: lime-flower water, shea butter and natural vegetable oils such as avocado, argan and jojoba. The creams have a very delicate scent and leave the skin feeling soft and nourished but not greasy. The soap, which contains organic donkey milk and organic shea butter, is mild enough to use for infants. Virtually all the ingredients in the soap are natural, and more than 85% of them are organic too—an extremely high percentage. (In France, for a product to legally refer to itself as organic, just 10% of its ingredients must be organic. Anakae is certified organic by the international association ECOCERT.)
Tending the herd
Gambier has also started producing some limited-edition creams. In 2009 she made 500 Lait de Printemps body creams, using the milk that results from grazing on lush spring grass. It is now a product that is produced only once each year.
Since the launching of Anakae, says Gambier, the change in her lifestyle has been enormous. For the first two years of setting up the project, she continued her television work, but in 2007 she gave up her day job to devote herself full-time to the cosmetics. “I had a very busy, stressful job and was constantly on the move,” she says. “Then suddenly I was alone out in the countryside. My telephone stopped ringing and I thought ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ ”
Now instead of organizing props and outside broadcasts, Gambier tends to her herd of donkeys. She feeds them during the winter when they cannot graze, she monitors their health and even helps deliver their young. She milks them only when she needs the milk—which might be every few days, weeks or even months at times.
As we walked down to their field, they came trotting up to the fence, braying at the sound of her voice, eager for a nuzzle and a pat. She pointed them out one by one: “That one with the funny nose is Boutchou, my first donkey and there’s her foal. That one is Framboise—my second donkey. And these are last year’s babies—three males and a female.” She is scrupulous about where she sells the foals, and only breeds the jennies every three years, rather than the normal two. Her concern for her herd’s welfare is not taken into account for organic certification, but the impression is clear that, for Gambier, it’s just as important as the end product.
Information on where to buy Anakae products can be found at www.anakae.com
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of France Today
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