21 August 2014

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Liquid assets: how water styles can affect your palate


Could water be diluting your fine-dining experience? Meet the experts who argue that just like fine wine, not every bottle of H2O is the same, and that its character is anything but neutral.water feature 2013 - water-pics_148492341-copy.jpg

‘The most important thing to know is that water is not just water,’ says Michael Mascha, a world-leading authority on H2O, and owner of the encyclopaedic FineWaters website. Woe betide a sommelier who fails to appreciate this in Mascha’s presence. ‘I’ve got some stories to tell...’ he says of his run-ins with ‘lazy restaurants’.

It’s fair to say, however, that the idea of different waters having specific taste profiles remains a mystery to most people. Several attempts have been made to instigate water menus in restaurants and hotels, perhaps the most well known in London being a 30-strong list at Claridge’s, launched in 2007 and headed by 42cl of 420 Volcanic water for £21. But the furore appeared to fade as darkness fell on the UK economy, and environmental concerns shifted the focus to ‘eau de Thames’, direct from the tap.

What Mascha and several others argue is that in the context of fine dining or the preparation of a good meal, why not give as much attention to the water as anything else? ‘People are sceptical because they’ve not experienced it, but the second they’ve had five or six waters, they walk away and say “I’d no idea what I was missing”,’ says Mascha. ‘It’s an important process of moving from a commodity to a product that has terroir.’

Going to ground

And there’s the key word. As many waters spend a long time becoming intimate with varying combinations of earth, sediment and rock, their levels of minerality can differ enormously, which in turn affects the way they taste. S. Pellegrino, for example, travels for up to 30 years through the chalky Italian Dolomites, acquiring a discreet mineral flavour and medium-sized bubbles. Sister brand Acqua Panna voyages for 15 years to its source – known as an aquifer – in the Tuscan hills.

Minerality is measured by total dissolved solids (TDS), and includes minerals such as calcium, magnesium, bicarbonates and sodium. Mascha that says his current favourite water, Slovenian ROI, has an astronomical TDS of around 7,500mg per litre. He adds that its high sodium levels make it an absolutely ‘sensational’ salty match with dark chocolate.

A more typical high-TDS water, such as S. Pellegrino at between 900 and 1,000mg per litre, is equivalent to a medium- to full-bodied red wine, thanks to its greater mineral complexity and medium carbonation, offering a bigger mouthfeel. A low-mineral glacial water, such as Norwegian Isklar, resembles a crisp, light white wine. Different levels of individual minerals, the relative softness of the water, and its level of carbonation are also important.

Cooking up a storm

Artesian water Fiji has a middling TDS, with a softness that many believe lends it a silky mouthfeel and subtle sweetness. It is served in several top Asian restaurants, including Nobu, Gilgamesh, Nozomi and Asia de Cuba, and the brand produced a recipe book in 2012 entitled Taste the Difference.

UK brand Hildon, another favourite among high-end restaurants, emanates from the chalky hills of Hampshire’s Test Valley. A low carbonation was chosen purposefully for its sparkling version, to refresh rather than fill up diners.

Beyond the kitchen counter, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck was an early adopter of cooking vegetables with mineral water, and others are catching on. ‘A very fine example would be the different ways of cooking asparagus,’ says Olivier Limousin, award-winning chef at two Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. ‘When using mineral water, the colour is more vivid and the sweetness is more apparent. Whereas with tap water, the colour will be slightly dull and the unique fragrance disappears. Also, the higher alkaline level in tap water leaves a slight drying sensation on the palate.’

So, next time you’re sitting down to dinner, perhaps you’ll see water in a new light. And you thought it was just for drinking…

Top tips for matching water with food

water and oysters 2013 - water-pics-2_152950069x.jpg1 Temperature: Michael Mascha of FineWaters says ‘cellar temperature to room temperature’ works best.

2 Ice – don’t do it: There’s nothing worse than a water glass full of ice, because it numbs the taste buds.

3 Check the water’s profile: Look for mineral content (TDS) and aquifer source. If sparkling, the level of carbonation affects mouthfeel. Think Gerolsteiner or Badoit as light, S. Pellegrino as medium-full and Perrier as blockbuster bubbles.

4 Contrast and complement: Think wine. ‘A high-minerality water will completely overpower something like sushi,’ says Mascha. Neil Philips,
UK ambassador for S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, recommends the former with ‘big, full-flavoured dishes’ such as beef or game, or strong cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Acqua Panna’s lighter, non-carbonated qualities suit more elegant flavours such as oysters, creamy pasta, veal or light desserts (lemon tart or sorbet).

5 Be adventurous: ‘There’s no need to search for the best water and stick with it,’ says Mascha. ‘You can have many different experiences.’ Try the range at Aqua Amore in south London, run by Michael Tanousis, which distributes to restaurants and homes (aqua-amore.com).

by Chris Mercer

This feature was published in the 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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