When I first heard whispers about Portuguese soap brand Tomelo, I have to admit I was slightly suspicious. Having recently fallen in love with the small-scale, elegant, artisanal soap companies dotting the river town of Porto, I felt that Tomelo’s use of donkey milk for its soap base could at best be described as… intriguing.
But there I was earlier this summer in the sunny boutique-cum-café that Tomelo recently opened in a quiet residential neighbourhood on Porto’s outskirts. Here, Jorge Lira, an architect by training and soap entrepreneur by passion, walked me through both Tomelo’s slowly expanding product range and its eco-minded history.
Established by Lira in 2005 in the tiny north-eastern Portuguese regions of Vimioso and Miranda do Douro, Tomelo was born from a desire to save endangered local donkeys, or burras. Back when the country was an agricultural titan (or at least, a mini titan), donkeys were a crucial component of its rural labour force. Now that it is mostly industrialised, the charming creatures are at risk of existential redundancy. To help stave off their extinction, Lira seized upon the idea of exploiting their milk as a way of boosting burra breeding and providing a viable end use for this rich, but not usually consumed, product.
The idea, while novel, was hardly new. Donkey milk has been made into soap since the time of Cleopatra, when the Egyptian queen supposedly bathed daily in the creamy liquid. Today, Tomelo has refined and focused this concept – harvesting milk from its small herd of donkeys, which is then mixed with local herbs, almonds, olive oil and honey and made into face and body products. There is a flagship collection of colourful soaps (first picture, from €1.50) infused with local lavender, lily of the valley and verbena, and packaged in retro-styled boxes. These are sold alongside rich body milks (second picture, €16), hand creams (€10) and a particularly potent anti-wrinkle cream (€14). All are made – for now – in a friend’s house in Provence with purely Portuguese ingredients. Once demand increases, Lira explained, Tomelo will move into a local production facility already on the drawing board.
For the moment, Tomelo is available at quality apothecaries across Portugal, as well as at its new flagship boutique, which also serves tasty snacks and stocks wines, spirits, cheeses and charcuteries from other local, small-scale manufacturers. It’s admittedly a bit out of the way, but the drive from town is barely 15 minutes. As for the reward upon arrival: whether for personal use or as an unusual and elegant gift, Tomelo’s donkey milk goodies are decidedly uncommon takes on everyday indulgences.