“IT’S a bit of a standing joke amongst my friends at this stage: ‘Oh, there’s Virginia the Texan selling rainwater to the Irish!’”
Well, they do say that fact is stranger than fiction, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the conversation with Virginia O’Gara, co-founder of My Goodness, carries on.
It also emphasises just how unique My Goodness is — a by-product of a lifetime’s experience, learning, and a commitment to building a community around their food ethos.
So how do a raw vegan from Texas and a green-woodworker from Donegal (Virginia’s husband, Donal), end up successfully selling fermented rainwater and three-month-old salted cabbages in Cork?
“I moved to Cork from Texas in 2006 to study permaculture at Kinsale Further Education College,” says Virginia. “At the time Ireland was one of the only places in the world offering a permaculture course.
“I had heard about this mythical place called Kinsale where the town council had gotten behind a group of radical students who had made a roadmap toward sustainability for their town. I got involved with Kinsale Transition Towns and started a food growing co-operative, selling our produce at the local farmers’ market.”
Virginia’s culinary journey began with Food Not Bombs, a grassroots organisation using food that would otherwise be wasted to feed the most vulnerable and needy in society.
It influenced how she looked at and used food: how to take a product that would otherwise be waste and turn it into something that would be nourishing and valuable.
“My husband, Donal, and I weren’t thinking about having a food business, but I was really interested in fermentation. Permaculture is a design philosophy where the problem is the solution.
There’s a lot of rain in Ireland, I was finding it hard to live every day with so much rain. But could I see rain as a resource, arguably one of our most valuable, and turn it into something that is useful and be able to then appreciate it? That’s where the idea of harvesting rainwater and fermenting it to make Kombucha and Kefir came into being.
“Kefir is rain water, sugar and kefir grains which give the drink its probiotic value. The lactobacilli create a biofilm, or SCOBY, for all their microbe friends to build a great little community to hang out in. We need those to be able to aid us to digest our food properly, have more energy and more enzymes in our system.”
My Goodness was born from a raw vegan café called Very Healthy Food on Douglas Road.
“It was the first vegan food business in Cork, across from an anarchist book store called Solidarity Books, down the street from a yoga studio and on the same road as Loafers, the first gay bar in Cork. It was Cork’s little San Francisco and it was thriving.
“When the café closed, six of us who worked there got together and said that there was a need to be filled. The Other Place on North Main Street said they were in need of a café and asked if we would like to run it. So we opened a raw vegan fermentation business upstairs in an old gay disco!
“It was probably one of the best times of My Goodness; working together, making no money and coming up with hilarious concepts. We had a ‘Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Raw’ menu every Friday, and opened three days a week as a pop-up.
“Six months in there was a fire, and we lost our kitchen. The next week we were working a Farmers’ Market and we had all our money robbed. It was the harshest time for our business, we just managed to motivate each other to keep going. We transformed a friends’ kitchen into a workable space and started hunting for our new spot. In early 2016, we leased a premises in Marina Commercial Park. We now have a 1,000 square foot production space, and half of that is dedicated to creating rain water fermented Kefir and Kombucha.
“My Goodness makes delicious and healthy food and drinks. It’s a holistic approach of producing the food that we eat. We’re interested in having a really good quality of life, a strong community and feeling really good about what we’re doing and producing a product we can really get behind.
“It isn’t an easy business plan that we’ve chosen to follow here. When I told my father I was fermenting rainwater and serving up salted cabbages that we’ve let sit in a vat for three months his response was, ‘Baby are you OK, you can come home!’
“I have to laugh at myself because it’s ridiculous really, but knowing we’re trying our best to run an ethical business helps me to sleep at night. I don’t want to put this much time and effort into creating something that I can’t believe in; and 30 years down the line questioning why we didn’t step up and do something to actively make a change. And it’s not that hard — yes, we are a tiny business in a relatively small city trying to make a change, but if a couple of anti-capitalist anarchists can do it there’s really no excuse for anyone else not to!
“I like to refer to Kefir as Kombucha’s pretty cousin! It’s a sour and bitter flavour that you crave for how good it makes you feel. The Kefir fermentation cycle is much shorter than Kombucha, just five days, so there is a different spectrum of probiotics present in it.
“Kombucha is fermented tea with SCOBY, it has more vinegar notes and is fermented for 10-14 days. Both are incredibly hydrating and jam packed with probiotics,” Virginia explained.
“Our Keffir and Kombucha are delicious! A sparkling, fruity, tangy, sour, probiotic beverage that just happens to be good for you. It’s a living raw ferment; always growing and changing so you never know what the microbes are going to do — it’s magical!
“Our Minted Limey Kefir, made with lemon, lime, mint and cucumber, was a recipe we first came up with four years ago. Sometimes it’s called The Heavy Nettle when nettles are in season. Nettles has magnesium, iron and calcium and whenever you take herbs and ferment them, the beneficial qualities of that herb become more bioavailable to your system.
“We also produce Gut Shots, a by-product of our sauerkrauts — the leftover brine is loaded with probiotics. It’s a really strong flavour so we serve them as little shots. Our favourites are Golden Child with turmeric and black pepper; 24 Carrot Gold and our Kimchi shot which we also use for a Bloody Mary mix.”
The My Goodness Kefirs are on available on tap at Cronin’s Bar in Crosshaven.
“They were the first customers to have the drinks on tap, swapping between Minted Limey or Hibiscus & Citrus. We’re also talking with a number of bars in Cork to come on tap, plus we have five taps on at our English Market stall every day.
“Bars are starting to come around to the idea of having our Kombucha or Kefir on tap as an alternative to the usual fizzy drinks. Because our weather is so questionable, we need a place where we can gather. Pubs are so lovely and cosy, it’s nice to be able to have that pub experience and to nourish yourself with what you’re drinking,” said Virginia.
At Neighbourfood on April 2, My Goodness are hosting a ‘Kraut Rock Night!’ Virginia explained: “It’ll be a celebration of early German electronica while making sauerkraut together,” something she refers to as Community Kraut, “and then serving everyone a fermented meal. You’ll get to sample our drinks and see how easy it is to make sauerkraut.”
It sounds like a delicious way to spend an evening.
My Goodness operates a market stall at Douglas and Mahon farmers’ markets; the Coal Quay every Saturday, Neighbourfood every Thursday evening and the English Market daily.
* Next week, in the final part of our series, Kate talks to Pamela Weaver, co-founder of Fintan’s who are producing small batch botanicals hand-made in West Cork.