From a life on the road to an old dairy

Su Derrick at La Vaquería.
Su Derrick at La Vaquería. / Jennie Rhodes
  • Su Derrick bought La Vaquería from María, the lady who used to milk the cows in what was one of five dairies in Benamargosa; locals still bring her old milk churns that they used to have filled up, as reminders of days gone by

When I arrived at La Vaquería, owner Su Derrick, was serving up mango jam tarts to one of her regulars, Audrey, who lives locally, near Benamargosa. We all agreed that jam tarts have lost out to trendy cakes such as muffins and cup cakes and start to reminisce over grandmothers, baking and other traditional British food.

Su, who has been running this quirky, homely, cafe/restaurant-cum-art centre for 12 years, explains that she has managed to combine a love of cooking and art in the place she calls home. She says that she loves using old recipes that have been passed down through generations of her family.

"I still make parkin, which is a traditional Lancashire recipe and that's where my grandmother was from," explains Su.

As the Spanish name suggests, La Vaquería is a former dairy. Su bought it 12 years ago after a chance meeting with the then owner, María, who thought the building may be of interest to the growing number of foreigners moving to the area.

"I was looking for a studio for my art," explains Su, adding, "I went to see the place and saw how it could work for me."

While Su doesn't remember the place as a working dairy, María and other residents of the village have told her anecdotes about taking their milk churns to be filled there.

"In fact over the years a number of people have donated their old milk churns. It's almost like they see this place as a museum," says Su. She adds that hers was once one of five working dairies in the village "before the dawn of UHT milk".

A life on the road

Su, 54 and originally from Hampshire, first came to Spain 30 years ago, after a time as "a hippie living on a bus" in the UK. "I witnessed the Battle of the Beanfield [when Wiltshire police prevented the Stonehenge Free Festival] and saw some of my friends being beaten by the police," she recalls.

She and her friends decided to travel down to Portugal one winter and then travelled through Spain to go to France for the fruit-picking season, which is where she also started earning a living through her pavement art.

"I was always artistic and even got a place at Winchester College of Art, but I never took it up," the artist explains.

She went on to spend summers in France and then winters in Spain, where a friend was already living in La Zubia, a tiny hamlet between Benamargosa and nearby Comares. In 1989, she bought her first house, in Benamargosa, with some money she had saved from pavement art and fruit picking.

"I am a Gemini and while I have a more wild, creative side, I also have a very focused, businesslike side and I though that buying a house was a good investment," she explains.

Su married, had three children and she and her husband set up a construction business.

"We were lucky as it was the mid 90s by then and just at the time of the construction boom. Lots of foreigners were coming to the area so business was booming," Su recalls.

However, a few years later and with a desire to get back to her artistic roots, Su was on the lookout for somewhere to turn into a studio and that is when her timely meeting with María took place. Su says, "I had caught the bus to Malaga and María was sitting next to me. A lot of the local people knew me as for a long time we were the only foreigners in the village. I'd also done quite a lot of translation work for the town hall and so María asked me if I could help her to sell the property."

From the beginning, Su started giving art classes and also gave after-school lessons to the local children, having done a spell as the after class art teacher at the local primary school.

Turning the place into a business, where musicians come to perform regularly and running the various art workshops has been a labour of love.

"The place allows me to fulfil the two sides of my Gemini character and it's like my palette," smiles Su.

She goes on to explain that the whole process has grown "organically" from starting to offer people cups of tea and coffee when they travelled to one of the workshops, to baking cakes and quiches and so on to sell. "People have to travel to get here, so I wanted to offer them some refreshments."

From there she has turned the place into a successful café and restaurant, but kept art at the centre of what she does. Mosaics on the floor greet people as they arrive, as do Lucky the Dalmatian and Honey, the latest arrival, a tiny kitten who turned up one day and has become part of the family.

Su, who has since divorced, says that she still misses life on the road and goes travelling when she shuts La Vaquería in January. However, she is full of ideas for the place as says she "daydreams" about what she can do with it and is fulfilling her dreams "whenever time and money allow".