20 August 2014

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Water Wars - Alex Renton


The campaign against bottled water in restaurants is gathering momentum and sales are tumbling. But isn’t dining out about taste and choice? Alex Renton thinks it’s time for the water police to step back

Water in restaurantsThe facts are sickening. Bottles are shipped thousands of miles across the world to quench the thirst of snobs who just want the cachet of the label. But you could bottle essentially the same stuff anywhere. It’s pure selfishness – it hurts the planet, it hurts the poor and it messes up everyone’s environment. It’s time we just said, ‘No’.

There are those who believe this statement to be true not only for mineral water, but also for all the alcoholic liquids we import, from wine and whisky to vodka and gin. But is it really true? Does anyone really believe that a bottle of South African Chenin Blanc tastes the same as a Loire white, or that a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for under a fiver is no different to one from New Zealand? And while Japan’s Suntory single malt whisky may beat Scotland’s best in some competitions, it definitely tastes very different to Scottish whiskies, all of which have their own distinctive flavour profiles. The same goes for vodka, and gin, and beer…

These comparisons hold no less true for mineral waters. The various brands contain different minerals in different quantities, they may be still or sparkling, with big or small bubbles. And while there are times when a glass of tap water fits the bill, do you really want to accompany a glass of top Bordeaux with a glass of water with the heady scent and tang of chlorine? Yet the campaign against mineral water is proving to be perhaps the most successful of any green-minded fad of the past few years. Bottled still water sales are down 28%
on a year ago and still falling.

As with all such consumer crazes, the water campaign has swiftly turned into bullying. This was started by The Times’s combative restaurant critic, Giles Coren, who announced he would mark down any restaurant if it only served bottled water. ‘People who drink bottled water are morons,’ wrote Coren. ‘I’d rather share my table with a child murderer than a man who drinks Fijian water.’

But hang on a minute – is Fiji water so very bad? The company is that impoverished country’s second largest exporter; it’s responsible for 200 jobs and 10% of Fiji’s foreign earnings. Shipping Fiji water to Britain in 2007 emitted the same carbon cost as running 12 small cars, according to the company’s PR.

Fiji water – under assault in the States, where it was the preferred water of Beverly Hills – has announced plans to be ‘carbon negative’ this year, with reforestation and other projects in the islands eating up more carbon than the bottling and shipping process produces. You want those Fijians out of work? This, of course, is just like the Kenya runner bean conundrum – a wrenching moral challenge for liberal foodies. What do you want? A fractionally greener planet and 5,000 unemployed Kenyan bean pickers? You favour the Africans – just how green are you?

In the States, the water campaign is further ahead than it is here. Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s legendary California restaurant, used to sell 24,000 bottles of Italian fizzy a year. Since her ban, 18 months ago, customers drink only San Francisco’s mains, filtered and carbonated on site. Naturally, right-on American fine dining has jumped into line behind Ms Waters: the latest to follow are New York hotspots Gemma, Waverly Inn and Del Posto. ‘Bottled Water Is So Over’, ran a headline in the New York Post recently.

Outright bans haven’t taken off in Britain despite the media clamour – we don’t really do that sort of thing. Aldo Zilli, who has a fish restaurant in Soho, announced a ban in February, but swiftly restored San Pellegrino after customers complained. Even Acorn House, which is billed as Britain’s greenest restaurant, offers Belu water alongside in-house filtered. (Belu is less exotic than it sounds – it’s from Shropshire. But it’s also carbon-neutral and profits go to combat drought in the thirsty bits of the world.)

The assumption that decent people drink tap has spread worryingly fast. In some places, I’ve had waiters frown if I order bottled water, just as they once scowled at an inter-course cigarette. A Square Meal agent reports that on a recent visit to Mark Hix’s new City chop house, he was sitting with half a glass of fizzy mineral water in front of him when a waiter, unbidden, approached and topped it up with tap.

‘I pointed out his error and he just pulled a face and walked off.’

The critic AA Gill has complained that the water issue is stupid – T-shirt slogan morality. ‘Water has become the toast of self-righteousness,’ he says. That’s as excessive as Coren’s own anti-water assault. But there is moral wriggle room on the bottled water issue. First, restaurants should offer tap, and they shouldn’t charge for it – that’s a given. But in the cause of freedom and pleasure, let’s stand up for our right to buy water when we feel like it. It’s hard not to sympathise with Silvano Giraldin at Le Gavroche when he protests: ‘Why not drink bottled water? Why not treat yourself just like you treat yourself to a glass of wine? There are times I do not mind treating myself to something special. This is important in life!’

The campaign aimed at restaurants is far better aimed at supermarkets, which sell the stuff for everyday consumption. Restaurant dining is, after all, a luxury, and certain allowances should be made for this. Surely a teetotaller enjoying a restaurant meal should be ‘allowed’ to drink a bottle of water, particularly if fellow diners are having a bottle of fine wine.

And if you do feel guilty, you could always buy Volvic, which is promising to build wells in Africa, providing 40 litres to poor children for every litre you buy. Or you could choose to drink still water from the tap and bottled fizzy. But above all, remember that drinking good water is not the worst crime against the planet you can commit. Travel by rail and take your holidays in the UK and you’ll still be ahead in the green stakes in 10 years’ time.

Restaurants should offer tap water, and they shouldn’t charge for it – that’s a given. But, in the cause of freedom and pleasure, let’s stand up for our right to buy bottled water when we feel like it.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008