Photo by Patricia Esteve
The mineral water business is booming, with expense account diners showing off their purchasing power by drinking exotic H2O alongside expensive chateaux. However, there’s now a growing backlash against bottled waters and even in the fanciest London restaurants, right-on diners are shunning the likes of Hawaiian rainwater or Fijian dewdrops and insisting on a jug of Soho’s best tap water instead.
There are a number of reasons for this, perhaps inspired by growing economic and environmental fears. Some resent paying over the odds for bottled water when tap water is (almost) free and generally tastes fine. For others, the plastic bottle has taken the place of the plastic bag as the environmental bête noire du jour. Apparently, sales of metal water bottles normally used on hiking trips are soaring as green-minded drinkers take tap water from home to gym, work and school, rather than picking up a bottle of Evian at the shop.
But it’s in restaurants that the battle lines are really being drawn. Although a growing number of consumers have no qualms about ordering a jug of tap water, many are still either too embarrassed to ask for it in fancy restaurants or simply prefer the flavour of their favourite bottled waters.
So if you do want to order mineral with your meal, you can negate the environmental effects somewhat by choosing local waters over the more exotic and far-flung labels. And Catalunya has a wide variety of waters to satisfy every palate and without costing a high environmental price. Any of the following varieties would be a fitting accompaniment to a Michelin-starred menú degustación.
Aigua de Rocallaura
This mineral water company celebrates its centenary this year. In 1908, the great-grandfather of the current proprietor started bottling water from the Rocallaura spring in Rocallaura, Vallbona de les Monges, in the comarca of Urgell. The water from the local springs contains bicarbonates, calcium and magnesium as well as some elements that are relatively rare in mineral water, such as lithium and strontium. It’s diuretic and recommended for people with kidney stones and is thought to be good for liver and intestinal problems. The high bicarbonate content makes it a good after-dinner digestive aid. It’s recommended that the water is taken at 13-degrees Centigrade, the temperature at which it emerges from the earth.
Aigua de Vilajuïga
This water was the favourite of Salvador Dalí, and it shares his birth year—1904. Like Dalí, it comes from the Empordà, specifically the Serra Verdera, part of the Cap de Creus massif. Also like Dalí, it’s unique because it’s the only Spanish carbonated water with no added gas—the bubbles in the bottle are those that have bubbled up through the rock. It has generally low levels of mineralisation, but relatively high levels of magnesium and calcium, which, the bottlers claim, “give it the correct quantity of mineral salts and oligoelements…that are indispensable for the body”.
It has 30 percent less bicarbonates, 55 percent less chlorides, 59 percent less fluoride and 39 percent less lithium than other waters on the market. On the other hand it has nearly five times more magnesium and 37 percent more calcium. The composition of the Vilajuïga water has remained unchanged since it was first bottled over 100 years ago.
Dalí wasn’t the only famous Catalan to sing Vilajuïga’s praises. Writer Josep Pla in his book Viatge a la Catalunya vella (Trip to Old Catalunya, 1942) commented “In Vilajuïga there are excellent waters, considered as the best for the kidneys in Europe. I could back up the quality of Aigua de Vilajuïga with testimonies of many people I have met around the world, even in the most unthinkable places.”
But how does it taste? “In the mouth it stands out for its lightly acidulated sensation and the carbonated tickling, well built, without saline excesses, well balanced and harmonious,” according to oenologist Eduard Puig Vayreda. “Its light bubbles and fine gas and its saline backtaste leave a sensation of freshness and wellness in the mouth.”
Aigua Mineral Natural Caldes de Boi
Caldes de Boi mineral water comes from the Bou spring at a height of 1,500 metres above sea level in Caldes de Boi on the edge of the Parc Nacional de Aigüestortes in Lleida province. The ‘Font del Bou’ is just one of 37 springs that emerge naturally at the balneario Caldes de Boi. The water bubbles out at 28-degrees Centigrade, qualifying it as an ‘agua thermal’. It filters through layers of granite as it rises 3,000 metres through the earth, taking at least 80 years to surface. “The flow of the water is limited to 13,000 litres per hour; this water is like a reserva wine,” boasts Walter Jorge Ankli, proprietor of Caldes de Boi, and great-grandson of the company’s founder. The water has a generally low mineral content—specifically low in calcium and high in silica, chloride and bicarbonate. It’s recommended by the bottlers for the treatment of gastritis and gout. The gentle bubbles and smooth but distinctive flavour make it an in-between water—ideal for drinkers looking for a water that will not overpower but will still have personality.
Les Creus mineral water is melted snow that has filtered through the granite of the Pyrenees at 2,000 metres above sea level. It emerges at a spring in the Can Gaspar de Les Creus estate near Maçanet de Cabrenys in the province of Girona. It’s an area of high rainfall, surrounded by peaks and containing a great many natural springs, with a reputation for purity. Les Creus is one of the younger commercial waters; the company Aguas Les Creus was established only in the Sixties. Today, it’s part of the Vichy Catalán group. The water is soft, with a low mineral content, which makes it perfect as a palate cleanser between wines at a tasting session or for preparing baby food or bottles.
Cooking with mineral water
Many chefs recommend cooking with mineral water, choosing the level of carbonation and mineral content according to the recipe. As part of the recent water-themed Expo Zaragoza 2008, the Academia Española de Gastronomía released El Agua en la Cocina del Futuro—a book of recipes using Vichy Catalan. This water was chosen as the cornerstone of the recipe book after a blind tasting, apparently.
Although the importance of a particular water might not be obvious in many recipes, there’s one recipe where a good fizzy mineral water does make a difference: in a batter. Gradually whisk carbonated mineral water into equal amounts of seasoned plain flour and cornflour until the mix has the consistency of double cream. Dip fillets of fish into the batter and deep fry in hot oil (it’s hot enough when a drop of batter sizzles and goes brown) until crisp and golden.