With trendsetting Californian restaurants opting for old-fashioned tap water, expect a backlash against mineral water any time soon says Alex Renton
Only morons drink imported mineral water, says The Times's Giles Coren – and he now marks down restaurants that don't offer him tap before bottled. In the Netherlands among the hot mineral water brands this year is a rather stylish one called Neau – it looks like a bottle of mineral water and at €1.80 for 33cl, it is priced like one. But it contains no water – just a slip of paper explaining that you can reuse the bottle as often as you like by simply filling it from your own supply (gosh, have any of you restaurateurs ever heard of that trick?). Neau will also forward a portion of the money to the thirsty of Sudan.
Alice Waters has turned on her tap; Chez Panisse, her Californian shrine-restaurant, used to sell 24,000 bottles of Italian fizzy acqua minerale a year. Now her customers get only the product of San Francisco's mains, filtered and carbonated out the back of the restaurant. Where Waters leads other Californian restaurants follow: a raft of the Bay Area's finest have banned bought-in water and so has Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York. You can expect the backlash against mineral water to arrive near you before too long.
None too soon. We ship three billion bottles of water across the world every year; a quarter of all the mineral water we drink crosses national borders to reach us. Finland alone sends 1.4 million bottles every year the 2,700 miles to Saudi Arabia. There's an immense cost in carbon emissions, and a further environmental nasty in all the leftover plastic. Got the message? It's pretty obvious: and what's more surprising than the anti-mineral water movement is the fact that we British started the pay-for-H2O trend in the first place.
It was my mum who told me – on my first trip to France, aged nine – that the reason we had to buy water in bottles was because the French were dirty. So backward that they didn't know how to clean their water. That was a good reason for buying it. Is there any other? I don't think my mother, and indeed most nonmetropolitan Britons over 60, has ever got used to the idea of having to buy water in bottles for pleasure. Let alone the notion of a sommelier at work comparing the mouth-feel of Tasmanian Rain versus Fiji. But the absorption of bottled water into British eating culture, its evolution from a posh idiocy to supermarket mainstay was amazingly fast: it took at most 10 years, from 1985 to 1995. The process had several driving forces behind it. For a start, consumers were waking up to some of the sordid truths of food and drink processing. Londoners all told each other that by the time you sipped a glass of tap water it had been through the kidneys of 10 people before you.
Another factor was, of course, that in those years everyone got richer – consumers could afford to pay for water. Restaurants found some exciting mark-up possibilities in an area where no profit had previously existed. But most important of all – bottled water got loved up.
It went with rave culture. Young people had to drink a lot of it because they got so sweaty with all that healthy dancing. Well, that's the story we told our mums.
What didn't change was our tastes. The industry's great secret, as any food and beverage researcher will tell you, is that if you put a chilled glass of decent tap water (that is, not eau de central London) in front of 10 punters, five of them will not be able to distinguish it from a bottled brand. Half of us drink the label. And the label we like is foreign.
I was in the Austin, Texas branch of Whole Foods Market recently, looking at a tower of ‘Italian mineral water' bottles being sold at $1 each under WFM's own brand label. How, with all their endless preaching about food miles and ‘buy local' policies, could WFM justify shipping water all the way from Italy to Texas? I asked a spokeswoman. "Well, we do sell American water.
But people prefer the Italian – and we don't argue with our customers."
I think that increasingly, though, customers are going to start arguing with you. For a start, we don't like being asked to pay for tap (though widely believed, it is an urban myth that restaurants have to provide free water if asked to do so). So what's the answer? A decent filtration system costs a couple of hundred pounds; a carbonator about the same.
Now all you need to do is choose an elegant and endlessly recyclable glass bottle to put it in. Charge a couple of pounds a litre and see the smiles. Your next step, of course, is to get in touch with me for a trial sachet of my new patented instant-mineral mix – to which you just add water. Anyone for powdered Badoit?