Region, Nicoya

The Magic Herb Woman

Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español

As she can’t fly around on a broom, Milagro Goldenberg – or “Mili,” as her friends call her – prefers not to be called a witch. But it is no secret that her small hands are capable of performing magic with food, perfumes, ointments, elixirs or anything else that requires herbs.

Although the word “fulana” can have a negative connotation, according to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Dictionary of theRoyal Spanish Academy), in Goldenberg’s case, the nickname refers to her role as the owner and mistress of the restaurant La Fulana Cosa in Nicoya, where Mili’s chileros (vinagre-based chili pepper sauces), oils and digestives are part of the appeal.

Photo by Ariana Crespo. Aromatic oils and chilero sauces from La Fulana Cosa.
Where the Magic is Born

Her home is the second floor of the restaurant, and during the day, with no clients around, sounds abound from the forest that surrounds its four walls. With a hard cigar in her hand, red lips, her hair pulled back, medium-high heels and a neckline that’s impossible to miss, Mili came down the stairs from her home for her interview of almost two hours.

Questions are almost unnecessary with the Nicoyan descendent of Polish grandparents, mother of a 26-year-old daughter and wife of the Italian Davide Dondi, since she is capable of explaining her life as if it were a novel with unstoppable and polished speech.

The oldest of four sisters and the daughter of the well-known Nicoyan singer-songwriter Max Goldenberg, Mili studied clinical speech therapy at the College of Medicine of the University of Costa Rica. However, she practiced her profession for just two years at the La Anexion Hospital in Nicoya, working as a volunteer.

She is small, but she has noticeable character. She is not religious, but believes in a superior being. She is not an artist, but she has a Bohemian soul and her dramatic personality captures the attention.

Although she wasn’t planning on it, about 20 years ago– or more, as she can’t remember exactly – she decided that opening a restaurant was a good idea to put to use some recipes that she had learned during a trip to Mexico, where she lived for 11 years.

Based on her stay in that country, she adopted the pet phrase “fulana cosa,” which could be translated as thingamajig or doohickey, and decided that the phrase could be the ideal name for her restaurant.

From there, Mili realized that if she wanted to stand out above other places to eat in the Nicoya canton, she had to excel with distinct foods, and she chose to grow her own herbs to prepare chileros, jarisas (thicker hot sauces), oils and exotic digestives, which can only be found in her restaurant.

“I started with the chileros. That came first through Fidel, my cousin [Fidel Gamboa, the deceased musician and vocalist for the group Malpais], who was a fan of varieties of chilies. So I began to make different mixes that Fidel thought were absolutely gourmet, and he urged me to continue making them,” explained Goldenberg.

As part of her offerings, Mili has chileros made with strawberry and ginger, lemon and tarragon, cayenne pepper, pequin peppers and lemon balm and basil pesto.

Mili’s garden surrounds La Fulana and is a paradise for vegetarians and lovers of biology. You can taste and smell the abundance as she has varieties of basil with anise, wild lemon and different kinds of chilies, including congos and pequin, among others.

During a trip to Italy, Mili visited a restaurant where she was offered a banana digestive and immediately realized that a new world was opening up. “When, in Italy, they offered me a banana digestive, I said, ‘How can we have bananas in Costa Rica and not make things like this – it’s incomprehensible.’ And that’s how I started to make my own digestives,” she explained.

Coffee-chocolate, limoncello, mint gum and rose liqueur and ginger with honey are some of the digestives on the menu prepared by this petite Nicoyan.

Photo by Ariana Crespo. 
From Harvest to Science

Though planting a few herbs in her garden started as a hobby, Mili Goldenberg became passionate about understanding every property of the plants she cultivated and that friends from other countries were giving her.

“I started a deep investigation into herbs and I began to realize that herbs can produce absolutely wonderful aromas that help you, just like aromatherapy. Then I started to realize that all of these herbs that I use have a huge amount of curative properties,” explained Goldenberg.

Although her elixirs and ointments are not for sale, Mili has saved more than a few friends and family members from asthma attacks, muscle pain, or even given some the luck to win the lottery.

In addition to luck, her ointments also have aesthetic purposes, with the guarantee that at 53 years old she doesn’t have a single wrinkle on her face and has not had any plastic surgery or chemical treatments. Her abundant variety of elixirs are not only technical, but also a result of an inexplicable energy that she inherited from her cousin and accomplice Fidel Gamboa’s jasmine plants.

“Fidel was a jasmine lover and always had a bountiful life. He himself didn’t believe in his successes and now he’s not with us, but he was the person who helped me study, to look for more alternatives, so I started to collect his jasmines and mix ylang-ylang, cinnamon and honey, and that brings abundance. It brings balance to your aura,” she commented with nostalgia.

Perhaps her hands and her garden contain a fortune of products that could be patented and marketed, but Mili swears she has no interest in producing for profit, nor in losing hundreds of hours filling out papers to register her recipes. For her, the reward is being able to do something good for others and to delight the public with her delicacies.

“To me it seems that to see that something that I am producing with herbal mixes for my personal use can help other people is something formidable,” she said.

If you crave a special hot sauce, oil or digestive, you can try them at the restaurant, but if you are looking for an ointment or elixir, if you’re lucky enough that Mili feels something special for you, she just might give you one. 

Photo by Ariana Crespo. Mili recycles bottles from her family and friends to fill them with her elixirs that bring abundance and prosperity.