The Water Menu

[Image: The water selection at Claridge's, curated by Renaud Grégoire, food and beverage director].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The concept of terroir has its origins in French winemaking, as a means to describe the effect of geographic origin on taste. As a shorthand marker for both provenance and flavor, and as a sign of its burgeoning conceptual popularity, it has spread to encompass Kobe beef, San Marzano tomatoes, and even single-plantation chocolate.

But can water have terroir? What about the influence of the earth on water?

In late 2007, Claridge's (a luxury hotel in Mayfair, London) caused a minor stir by introducing a "Water Menu." The list features more than thirty mineral waters from around the world, described in terms of their origin and suggested flavor pairings.

Leaving aside a few obvious issues (such as the environmental impact of bottled water and the sheer economic wastefulness of sending multiple varieties of it to one hotel in England), it is hard not to appreciate the poetry of three-line exotic water biographies.

Take Mahalo Deep Sea Water, at £20 for 71cl, which comes from "a freshwater iceberg that melted thousands of years ago and, being of different temperature and salinity to the sea water around it, sank to become a lake at the bottom of the ocean floor. The water has been collected through a 3000ft pipeline off the shores of Hawaii." According to the Daily Mail, Mahalo has a "very rounded quality on the palate" and it "would be good with shellfish."

[Image: The Daily Mail's taste test results].

Meanwhile, Danish Iskilde's "flinty, crisp style" apparently derives from the Jutland aquifer's complicated geology, consisting of interlaced deposits of quartz sand, clay, gravel, and soil. The most expensive (and possibly the most exciting) water on the menu is 420 Volcanic from New Zealand. Sourced from the Tai Tapu spring, which bubbles up through more then 650 feet of rock at the bottom of an extinct volcano, it is apparently "extremely spritzy on the palate with a tangy mineral finish."

Claridge's has since been joined by the Four Seasons in Sydney, and, according to The Guardian, "a handful of five-star Los Angeles hotels now employ water sommeliers to advise on the best water accompaniment to spiced braised belly pork or fillet of brill with parmentier of truffled leek."

This same Guardian article goes on to recount the origins of Elsenham Water, which is described as "absolutely pure" and "very earthy—almost muddy," depending on who you ask. Elsenham was discovered almost accidentally by Michael Johnstone, a former jam manufacturer; it is filtered over a 10-year period, in a confined chalk aquifer, half a mile below his abandoned jam factory and a neighboring industrial-sealant plant. Now, staff in white coats and hair nets fill up to 1,000 bottles daily "from an acrylic tank connected to pipes running into a hole in the ground." Each bottle, priced at £12 for 75cl, is then polished by hand before it leaves the building.

According to Michael Mascha, former wine critic and author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, "water is in a transition from being considered a commodity to being considered a product."

There is an undeniable Wild West gold-rush type of excitement to the idea of drilling for water in geologically auspicious locations. However, Mascha's comment also implies that we might even begin to see the engineering of gourmet water products.

Loop tap water in a closed pressurized system for twenty years, through thick beds of pure northern Italian dolomite, and enjoy the lightly acidic result with chicken and fish. Better yet, blend it with water forced through a mixture of Forez and Porphyroid granite chips sourced from southwest France, stacked in a warehouse outside London to mimic in situ geological formations, to add a citrusy top note reminscent of Badoit.

A final spritz of oxygen ensures a silky mouthfeel—combined with the right designer packaging—and the burgeoning ranks of water connoisseurs will be lining up at your industrial plant for a taste.

[Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

erm, okay, water might taste a bit different here and there, i guess it's all relative. but, akhem, any idea how bad the bottled water industry is for the environment? i've expressed more below...

June 03, 2009 12:41 PM  
Anonymous jasonline said...

I always liked that in Italy, you could get wine cheaper than water.

The ‘burning the candle at both ends’ absurdity of this is kind of interesting. Oil is incredibly important for many useful things, so we build huge unnecessary cars and other toys which waste it. At the other end, diamonds serve no practical importance, but huge areas of Africa are ruined for their please, wasted entire populations. On and on, the once bountiful, crucial resource is made a commodity by reducing the supply….If water is going to be the next valuable resource which wars are fought over, policies built around, people are kept in power over, monuments are built for (check out the desal plant in Saudi Arabia), then it makes some sense that we literally consume the most important resource in order to take it to the brink of extinction and raise its price. Can you trade water yet? Could markets collapse and new ones open, when the price of a barrel of water hit 100$? Perhaps too dramatic and a bit of an exaggeration, but it puts oxygen bars way ahead of there time.

June 03, 2009 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Dethe Elza said...

I think the ultimate in this sort of nonsense is Bling Water, which comes in a bottle adorned with Swarovski Crystals (whatever those are, looks like rhinestones to me). I see these in the local upscale grocery store, but found their site here:

I can only hope the recession++ puts an end to water as fashion statement quickly.

June 03, 2009 2:35 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Interesting, I like the notion of imbued geography. I'm guessing you are familiar with the Snow Show based Diller + Scofideo/ John Roloff ice mosaic of frozen branded water?

June 03, 2009 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Water snobs.

June 03, 2009 4:47 PM  
Anonymous BenB said...

Better still, you could filter the water for ten years through an old cow's infected spinal column and watch this pompous, excessive and credibility-stretching bourgoisie trend mysteriously vanish.

June 03, 2009 10:23 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Re Bling h2o.
Does that picture represent the filtering process?

June 04, 2009 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Geoff Coupe said...

Homo sapiens and fuckwittery - a marriage made in heaven...

June 04, 2009 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Interesting article...not really a trend I support because of it's targeted demographic. After all, who but the very rich can afford such (in my opinion, quite arbitrary) haute-aqua? (that's also not all that great) However, I must say that I'm glad that in the past few years, water has *finally* received more spotlight on it's properties. Even today though, most people think water is just "water".

Supposedly the same everywhere (except of course, third world countries). So when I tell them that there are massive differences between different sources and differently treated waters, it doesn't really have the same effect as it should. Merely a blase "oh really? Hmm..."

It should be common sense that simple, mass-treated tap water isn't really *that* good for your body. And depending on the region you live, you could also gain the benefit of it having been extra-treated with chlorine and fluoride. Yay! For water to be absorbed properly into the body, into every nook and cranny for proper hydration...the water needs to adhere to the standards set by our body.

I'm not going to go into details here, suffice to say that most of our current waters don't sufficiently hydrate and detoxify us. So to jump back to the actual issue; this specific treatment of water as a luxury-item is a bit silly, but it does hint at the fact that every body of water *is* different and can impact your health in various (sometimes dramatic) ways. C'est tout, merci. :)

June 04, 2009 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Singe said...

This reminds me of that cloud-shaped structure, the Blur Building, in Switzerland. It also has a water bar!

June 04, 2009 11:18 PM  
Blogger JD said...

My sister suggests combining The Water Menu with The Ice Program.

June 04, 2009 11:59 PM  
Anonymous BenB said...

Good point, Jonathan. I suppose it's significant to note that 'water' isn't just H2O and is instead a solution made of varying dissolved substances dependant on 'backstory' so to speak. Personally, I see chlorinated/fluorinated (sometimes gaseous ozone replaces the chlorine) water as a good thing. You have to remember the reasons it was done, and that it is what makes our water as safe as it is (in comparison to non-treated water). As for adequate hydration... we make do.

June 05, 2009 8:04 AM  
Blogger Elan Morgan said...

You are being featured on Five Star Friday!

June 05, 2009 12:18 PM  
Blogger BotanicidalIntaglio said...

I'd prefer paying those prices for water only and only if it were properly brewed into wine or beer. They should also include among that list: Eau de Chernobyl, water sourced from shallow-arsenic filled wells in Africa, eau de eau, and eau de idioteque. Honestly, I can't imagine anything more frivolous and obnoxious than the supreme-eau stupidity of bottled water - made more decadent by fancy water.

June 05, 2009 11:33 PM  
Blogger Ah-Hao said...

Interesting post, Nicola.

In contrast to the implied novelty of 'luxury water' in Europe and North America, it is worth pointing out that the locally-specific tastes of water has been a source of abiding interest to Chinese scholars/literati since at least the Tang dynasty. The ability to differentiate between different waters has been (and still is) seen as central to the art of brewing tea.

The foundational text in this tradition is Lu Yu's 'Classic of Tea' (written about 760AD), which is all over this topic: he ranks the different types of water (spring, river, and well), discusses their respective ideal boiling times, taste profiles etc. Zhang Youxin (Tang Dynasty) went further, devoting a whole book ('The Report on Water for Brewing Tea') to a ranking of the different waters of China's rivers and springs. This is not to mention the great many apocryphal stories of famous tea connoisseurs being able to recognize at blind taste tests not only the variety of tea but even the source of the water used to brew them!

It is easy to scoff at this - snobbery has a long history, etc. - but what I think is more interesting is the great attention in this tradition to the active properties of materials, and the treatment of aesthetic questions in terms of the arrangement of material forces (cf. Reiser and Umemoto's 'Atlas of Novel Tectonics'). In tea making, this corresponds to a concern with the optimal arrangements of fire/heat, water, clay/porcelain (all of which have unique porosity and, thus, taste profiles) and so on that can best elicit the particular character of a a given tea to engender the appropriate aesthetic effect (i.e. tast). Of course, the teas are in turn conceptualized in very terroir-like terms of soil, winds, craft knowledge, and so on.

(As an aside, I think this explains why whatever the difficulties that western wine marketers have had in introducing elite European wine culture to the Sinophone world, drinkers there misunderstanding the concept of 'terroir' has not been one of them.)

Of course, it is well known that in East Asia food is seen very much on a continuum with medicine, and thinking of this I cannot help but recall the forerunner of all 'luxury waters', the 'healing' waters of Lourdes in France. Perhaps we need to be considering this from the other way around then: how is it that water came to be seen in its abstracted modern(ist) incarnation of "just h20"?

June 06, 2009 1:49 AM  
Blogger YHBHS said...

interesting posting... such a quality read you guys have going here.

all the best!
david john

i find the whole water thing interesting, but i have to agree. its been so bad for out environment and not really necessary in my eyes...

June 06, 2009 3:02 PM  
Anonymous London Frequently said...

Great post, I can't believe the prices of some of this water. Who would of thought it. Just found your post through Twitter. :)

June 06, 2009 6:29 PM  
Blogger wtf said...

All I can say is, watch this video on bottled water......

June 07, 2009 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Centers and Squares said...

It takes a certain sort of talent to write menu descriptions of water - not a talent that I possess but one that impresses me somewhat. I have observed the growing acceptance of paying for water in a bottle with dismay since I live in an area where we have excellent water from the tap. That being said the photo of the water bar looks very tantalizing!


June 07, 2009 6:45 PM  

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