The sun is blazing hot for April and my glass of homemade lemonade has grown warm in my hands. As far as the eye can see are miles and miles of olive groves and Spanish ‘campo’. It’s so quiet the air is buzzing, it’s as if you can hear the vibrations of nature herself stretching out in the sunshine. A cockerel crows, a bird cries and something is snuffling at my feet. An old black and white pug dog sniffs at my boots and I discover her name is Felicidad, which means ‘happiness’ in Spanish. That doesn’t surprise me, happiness is the only emotion you can feel when you are in Valerie Ashkenazi McHugh’s home.
How to describe Val? She is a chef, an herbalist, a nature lover and a qualified hairdresser…but labelling her anything at all seems wrong. To speak to Val is like traveling the world without moving. Her voice carries at its base her Geordie roots, softened by a Hebrew lilt that is delivered with her no-nonsense Israeli directness, and as she talks she peppers her sentences with Andalucian expressions – but it’s her eyes that draw you in, they promise you a story that will change the way you see the world forever.
‘I joined a Kibbutz when I was twenty one,’ she tells me, as we sit on her balcony and watch the falcons circling above. ‘I have always been drawn to communities, the power of the collective. I met my husband there and we set up a successful chain of children’s hairdressers. I was a workaholic mother juggling the pressures and financial strains of running a business while bringing up a young family. Every day I watched the local news, one suicide bomber after another, and although Israel is a beautiful place there was no peace; and neither was I spending time with the ones I loved. So we simply up and left.’ There is no sadness or regret behind Val’s eyes, in fact as she explains her first steps to freedom her face relaxes and she breaks out into a grin. ‘We left everything, I mean everything. Our home, our businesses, our new car. We bought a campervan, packed up our two girls, and along with just four suitcases we headed for Spain to start our lives over again. That was ten years ago.’
Some may call her crazy and reckless, irresponsible even, to uproot a family from financial stability to a vast expanse of unknown. Although what they really mean is, ‘bloody hell, I wish I had the balls to escape, drop out, start living and stop conforming.’ But it wasn’t good old fashioned guts that led Val and her family to the eclectic and unusual life she leads now. It was something much more magical.
‘I believe in the universe. I won’t say God necessarily, but something bigger than us,’ she says.’As soon as I started my journey I felt it, as if it wasn’t enough to pray and want but just to expect. To know that life would bring us what we needed.’
And it did. After six years living in various parts of Spain (cutting hair and selling homemade Israeli food) she settled in the sleepy white washed mountain village of Alozaina. Heard of it? Neither had we, yet it is only a 30km drive from Marbella. With 2,500 residents, merely fifty years ago it had as many donkeys as people and hardly a car on the road (and judging by its lack of parking facilities it’s expecting things to stay that way).
‘This is where my life really began,’ she explains. ‘I separated from my husband four years ago and came here with the girls, a new beginning. I have incredible friends who have supported me in everything I do.’ She offers us a plate of tomatoes, avocados and alfalfa sprouts accompanied by herbs, olive oil and bread; all produced by her or local farmers. An explosion of what real food should taste like overpowers my senses. Five ingredients, that’s all, but my goodness what have I been missing!
‘This house was one of the things I needed from the universe, a low-cost home surrounded by peace and nature, and it was delivered to me.’
If a building can reflect a person then this house is every inch Val. The entrance is a tiny red door, which from the outside gives no hint of the wonder within, and it opens into a dusky myriad of secret dwellings, winding staircases and curious details. Every wall is adorned with either memories of happy times, positive reinforcement or trinkets from Val’s travels. Nature follows her wherever she goes, her plants thrive just as vibrantly inside as out and every shelf and window ledge is filled with beautifully labelled bottles of ointments and potions.
And that is why we have come to Val’s home, we are here to learn about her latest project making healing balms and oils from the olive oil that the region is so famous for. I ask her how she began her journey into the world of herbalism.
‘I am completely self-taught. It’s simple really, it’s about going back to basics, feed the earth and it will feed you. When I moved here it was the olive trees that caught my attention, they reminded me of the landscape of Israel and to me have always been symbolic. I realised how one tree could sustain you fully; the olives feed you, its leaves and oil heal you and its bark can be burnt to keep you warm. That’s when I came across the idea of not only selling my oils and balms in markets, but to offer an Adopt A Tree initiative.’
This is the part where Val the business woman, who wasn’t completely left behind in busy Israel, shines through! Via the website you pay a yearly fee of just 75 Euros to support a local farmer and in return receive a box of goodies produced by your tree, including juicy green olives, extra virgin olive oil, scented massage oils, healing balms and candles from the local bee hives on the plantation.
‘Healthy good food is my passion,’ she explains, ‘it’s what bring people together. When news broke out a few years ago that Greece and Turkey were in competition with Spain to reduce the price of olive oil, then the outbreak of horror stories about horse meat and other strange components being found in processed food, I was horrified. I wanted to offer products filled with nothing but good, local, organic and pure ingredients.’
The amber bottles glow invitingly in the midday sun and her living room is filled with the heady scents of thyme, lavender, sage, rosemary and garlic as she demonstrates her process. Each infused oil has been baking in the sun for four weeks, it is then pressed, squeezed, then re-pressed and left in the sun a further four weeks before being bottled. The sun not only heats it and helps the properties from the herbs and flowers infuse, but the energy of the sun itself plays a vital part in energising the oils.
I ask Val if she has a message for our readers, she smiles and opens up her arms.
‘Earth needs to heal. We need to slow down, re-connect and go back to nature. It’s tough out there but it is not all bad – the lack of jobs is making people return to their land, their homes, their roots. People are becoming innovative and looking outside the norm for a way of life, they are seeking fulfilment over riches. Look at me; I have no car, no fancy house, no money…it’s brilliant!’
She gives me a big hug and I float off down the village lane, clutching my little glass bottle of sunshine, health and happiness, knowing that everything really is going to be alright.
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