Crystal Clear Flavor
Author: Saul Aparicio Hill/©ICEX.
Water, many of us were taught in school, is a colorless, odorless, flavorless liquid also known as the “universal solvent”. In those terms, drinking bottled water probably seems a little extravagant, and one brand of water should be very much the same as the next. However, this is not exactly true. Saul Aparicio dives in to find out why that is and why it matters.
Drinking water is not merely two atoms of hydrogen bound to one of oxygen. A number of substances, naturally present or added artificially, contribute a wide range of flavors. If we can agree on this statement, then the first question that probably comes to mind is: how do these flavors and components become a part of the water?
Although the legal definitions of different waters can vary from country to country, there are three main types of water that we can find in a bottle. The first is treated water, by which we mean waters that have been manipulated in some manner before being made available to the public. This would be the case of brands that “purify” water, removing chlorine and other elements from tap water and re-selling it bottled.
Another category is spring water. This refers to water that comes from a natural underground source—whether it springs spontaneously or is drawn by mechanical means—and is fit for consumption virtually untreated (filtering of particles such as excess sulfur and iron is allowed). In order to sport the spring water label, it must be bottled at the source.
Finally, we have natural mineral waters: these waters are rich in minerals, which accumulate in the water as it seeps down from the surface through earth and rocks for periods that range from decades to centuries. Sometimes, these waters filter down into an underwater reservoir, where they remain protected from external pollutants. Water such as this is not only immediately fit for human consumption, but also has a constant amount of minerals and other compounds in its composition, which remains unaltered despite being drawn. Again, this product must be bottled at the very source in order to be able to bear the words “mineral water” on the label.
The Taste of the Earth
Since the flavor and character of a water depends on the land through which it travels down into a reservoir, it would be fair to say that each natural mineral water has its own distinct terroir. In fact, given that distilled water is flavorless and that—as sommelier and water tasting pioneer Manuela Romeralo explains—“in order to be called mineral water, a water’s composition cannot be altered after leaving the source”, a natural mineral water tastes exclusively of the place it comes from. It is water molded into the image of the earth from which it springs.
Though the subtleties of different components can be difficult to get a handle on, some are easily identifiable. Certain mineral waters have a salty tanginess to them. If this is the case, it is a safe bet to say that the sodium content is high. A hint of sweetness can indicate the presence of fluoride, and iron can transmit a metallic tint. Other naturally and commonly found substances in mineral waters are magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), potassium (K), sulfate (SO4), bicarbonate (HCO3), silica (SiO2) and trace elements such as iron (Fe), iodine (I), copper (Cu), fluoride (F-) and zinc (Zn). Each of these has its own properties and tastes, which become noticeable at certain concentrations. This means that, if used wisely, one can use waters to compensate or balance a meal, much like a good sommelier does with wine.
Another example is sparkling waters. Naturally sparkling mineral waters tend to come from deeper sources located at places where they are subject to considerable heat. This means that, through the years, they tend to accumulate higher concentrations of minerals and have a stronger taste. So, texture and feeling aside, their more flavorful nature make them more interesting to accompany strong-tasting foods, helping to wash away flavors in between bites. If we add to this the refreshing effect that the carbonic gas has, one can see why they are ideally suited to dishes such as red meat or hearty stews. However, a more delicate food—such as fillet of sole or a meringue—will be ill-served by these powerfully flavored waters, and combine better with a slightly acidic water with medium-to-low mineral content.
Be Still, Water
When one thinks of a land with plentiful water, however, Spain probably isn’t the first country to come to mind. And, indeed, it is not a place with an abundance of surface waters. Then how is it that colonizing Romans and Arabs came to write of a land of abundance and crafted it into their empire’s granary?
Part of the answer is the astounding wealth of underground water sources. According to ANEABE, Spain’s most representative bottled water association, there are over 1,000 natural springs in Spain, yielding the pure water that results from decades or centuries of droplets filtering through earth and rock, leaving behind any impurities or microorganisms. There, confined by impermeable rock (normally clay or shale), they remained untouched, unpolluted and isolated from contact with the outside world. Until one day a crack in the earth—natural or man-made—splits the ground to release its bounty.
Take, for instance, the springs of Peñaclara (La Rioja, northern Spain). The first written reference to this source, found deep in the Cameros Mountain range, dates back to 1029 AD. Today the water from a 550-m (1,804-ft) deep artesian well (an artesian aquifer is an underground body of water subjected to positive pressure so that, not unlike an oil well, water rises to the surface naturally), remains unchanged: the same richly mineralized liquid continues to surge upwards at a constant temperature of 22ºC (71.6ºF), rain or shine, winter or summer, day or night. The composition of the water features a fairly high concentration of calcium sulfate, appreciable amounts of bicarbonate, magnesium and calcium, and significant concentrations of trace elements such as fluoride and strontium.
“In 2011 -explained General Manager Ignacio Evangelio- we received a 3-star superior taste award from the iTQi (International Taste & Quality Institute). It is an award granted by an international panel of chefs, sommeliers and culinary associations, so you understand that we are absolutely thrilled to have received it just as we’re beginning to focus more on exports. We already have some presence in the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, especially in restaurants, and we are making a big effort to make it into the Netherlands.”
Another of the waters that received a 3-star superior taste award in 2011 has a very similar story to Peñaclara. Mondariz water, from Pontevedra (Galicia), began to be bottled and sold in 1877. Once again, written records of the spring are much older and some references in Roman texts are thought to refer to the Mondariz spring.
The water at Mondariz, which flows out at a steady temperature of 16.5ºC (61.7ºF), spends anywhere between 60 and 150 years underground, resting in granite reservoirs, before reaching the surface. It is what is called a “weakly mineralized water”, meaning it has a low concentration of minerals, which makes it especially advisable for people with kidney stones or a tendency to get them. The most distinct character trait of Mondariz, though, is a substantial (compared to the rest of the elements in it) amount of iron, which gives it an absolutely unique taste. As one of the older players in the bottled water game, Mondariz exports to 29 countries and is one of the most commonly drunk mineral waters in Spain.
Another of the most commonly drunk waters in Spain is Solán de Cabras, which hails from the province of Cuenca, southeast of Madrid. The first known analysis of the water was commissioned by Charles III in 1786, and it is safe to say that the composition, since then, has remained unaltered. This is because, unlike other mineral waters, produced from rainfall seeping through the earth, Solán’s water is the result of flowing underground currents rushing through permeable limestone layers until they reach a natural deposit whose only exit is the Solán spring.
If we were to highlight one aspect of this weakly mineralized water, it would probably have to be the high proportion of magnesium, which is rare in waters with low calcium levels. Again, the taste is exceedingly clean and balanced, with a hint of fluoride-related sweetness offset by the sharpness of its minerality.
Naturally carbonated water is the rarest occurrence in the world of bottled waters. A very unique combination of geological factors—normally found in areas with volcanic activity—needs to occur for water to have sufficient amounts of CO2 to produce a “fizz”. Launched in November of 2010, Magma is a slightly carbonated water by Galician bottling firm Cabreiroá. The rainfall in the region seeps down to approximately 3,000 m (9,842 ft) underground, along the volcanic fault of Regua-Verín. There, at temperatures of 100ºC (212ºF) and higher, the water comes into contact with volcanic magma fumes, which infuse the water with a slight carbonation before generating great pressure that shoots it up into a natural underground reservoir. In this reservoir, completely protected from the outside at 150 m (492 ft) deep, the water retains some of its slight, but natural, carbonation. Instead of drawing it out through the topmost fountain, making it lose its gas, Magma is extracted at that depth and bottled in black, opaque aluminum bottles. Why black? The underwater reservoir is, of course, pitch dark. By drawing and bottling at depth, the people at Magma ensure that the first time their water sees the light is when the customer opens the bottle.
Magma, too, has made a splash among chefs, and cooperates with a number of renowned Spanish names, such as the Michelin-starred Pepe Solla and Xosé Torres, who have come to think of the water as a good complement to their Galician seafood-based cooking, “thanks to its combination of very fine bubbles and bicarbonate, which stimulates the taste buds.”
Another way is a natural carbonation of the water, as Vichy Catalan does with the water which comes from their land around Caldes de Malavella (from the Catalan caldera, meaning cauldron), in Catalonia, an area inhabited since the Paleolithic Age. Rainfall, which is fairly constant outside the summer, filters down granite to great depth, where volcanic activity heats it up, allowing it to accept large quantities of minerals and carbon dioxide. The heat and pressure make the water shoot up at great speed, until it spouts out of three sources in three adjoining mountains at a temperature of 58 to 60ºC (136.4 to 140ºF).
Vichy Catalan water can be found all over the world and is commonly recognized as one of the most unique natural mineral waters available, due to the high amount of carbonic gas and mineral concentration. Its flavor and character have made it a sought-after ingredient by renowned Spanish chefs, who have included it in recipes and cocktails. Culinary titans such as Ferran Adrià , Joan Roca, Carme Ruscalleda, the departed Santi Santamaría, Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana have all included this bubbly, transparent water in their creations.
Saul Aparicio Hill is a Madrid-based freelance journalist.