Water, Water Everywhere...
Water, water everywhere and far too much to drink. Do you feel guilty when you fall short of the recommended target? When you don't quite manage to hit that “essential” 2 litres a day mark? More importantly, have you ever wondered where this advice - or is it more of an instruction - comes from?
The hallowed pages of the British Medical Journal carried an editorial a few years or ago which says, essentially, that all this obsession with water is complete nonsense. And in the kerfuffle that followed a lot of doctors have thrown up a theory which is similar, in ways, to the one that states the Pope is a Catholic.
All this water fixation, all this hydration, flushing of your kidneys and clearing your complexion, might just have something to do with the companies which bottle water, stick a label on and sell it at a vast profit. You have to admit, there may be something in it.
Our water psychosis - let's call it our waterlogging - is massive at this stage; it seems to have replaced some of the articles of religion; but can anyone pinpoint when it all started?
My grandparents didn't carry water around with them. Nor did they, as far as I know, spend any time whatsoever wondering if they were sufficiently hydrated. They relied on tea and perhaps an occasional sherry to do the neccessary. They both lived into old age and remained perfectly sane. Their kidneys didn't shrivel, they didn't develop acne and, almost unbelievably given the paltry amount of actual water that ever passed their lips, their powers of concentration remained undiminished.
When I was at school there was a drinking fountain but it was used for the sheer fun of getting the arc of water into your mouth. It had no role in slaking thirst, that being the function of Coca-Cola and sweets called Quenchers.
I can't recall any bottled water when I went to university. Our fluid intake was confined exclusively to coffee and Heineken and we suffered no ill effects. Had anyone told us that drinking lots of water would help with our acne (which is a cruel myth, by the way), I'm not sure we would have been prepared to change the habits of a lifetime.
However, in no time at all, it seemed, bottled water was upon us. It started with Ballygowan, as far as I can recall. This was designed, I'm sure, for people who didn't want to ask for a glass of tap water in the pub and it was an instant success. Soon it was selling in big bottles, even in supermarkets.
Exotic names, encountered on French exchanges but never sampled directly, started to appear on this notoriously damp and soggy island: Evian, Volvic, Perrier, Vittel, even Badoit. Rehydration was no longer enough, it had to be designer rehydration, branded water.
And now we've come to the stage where people actually wear water. The stuff that flows plentifully down from our Irish skies is a fashion accessory. In fact, there was once an advertising campaign for some bottled brand with the strapline "Water that you wear"; and the truly scary thing is that people didn't laugh at this.
Where once Irish people demonstrated their wholesomeness, their status as good citizens, by being seen plodding dutifully off to Mass with a big black missal and maybe a mantilla, the contemporary equivalent is conspicuously sporting a bottle of branded water on the way to that modern temple, the gym.
We all know by now that water is very good at keeping us alive. It's hard to beat as a remedy for thirst and, as I'm sure Cleopatra twigged eventually, it's unbeatable for bathing. But that's as far as it goes.
Water is useless at keeping hunger away. It does nothing for weight loss and can actually operate in the other direction. It has no effect on acne and you don't need six to eight glasses of the stuff in order to concentrate.
When you pour away all the rubbish that is talked about Adam's ale there's a bit of common sense lurking at the bottom of the glass. We need a reasonable intake of fluids to keep us functioning but it doesn't matter in what form it goes in. And if - saving your presence - what comes out the other end is more the colour of beer rather than lager, you need to boost the intake. But not to the tyrannical two litres a day.
But, I hear you cry, what about all my toxins? Well, the good news is that you are a lot less toxic than the health industry would have you believe. Your liver and your kidneys are perfectly capable of dealing with any stuff that you need to be rid off and they quite like a nice cup of tea every now and then.
So, when we get water into perspective, what about buying the bottled stuff?
You may remember Pinky and the Brain, the surreal cartoon duo from 1990s kids’ TV, were constantly trying to take over the world. In one episode, as they consider the possibilities offered by contaminating the water supply, Brain comments "But Pinky, people who pay five dollars for a bottle of water are already mindless slaves."
Well, he had a point, of course. The branded water that you buy confers no health benefits beyond what you get with the stuff that comes out of the tap (provided your water supply is safe, of course) but I wonder how many people are taking this message on board.
Bottled water slipped very far down the list of life's essentials for most people when the crash came but now it seems to be back with a vengeance. The iconic, Ballygowan, is now slugging it out with a French import, Volvic. Amongst the legion of imported stuff there’s even a sparkling Vichy Catalan water (one of my favourites) in some good restaurants and wine shops (they have it in Whelehan’s Wines, by the way, in what used to be The Silver Tassie in south Dublin).
Bottled water was big business in other parts of the world long before Geoff Read set up Ballygowan in Newcastle West over 30 years ago. Citizens of cities like Paris and Rome have always been aware that their tap water has been through several other people - indirectly! - before it gets to them. The notion of purity sells.
I loathe Dublin tap water, to be frank. At best, it smells of bleach and, at worst, it’s musty, a but like a wine that’s “corked”. And this is not an entirely fanciful theory because TCA, the stuff that contaminates wine, is produced by an interaction between mould, steam and chlorine. Makes you think.
Ireland has always had an abundance of water but it used to be a lot purer than it is now. Consider the way in which rampant development has effected water quality, not just in Galway but throughout rural Ireland where you get a free portion of bacteria with every glass. We should not forget that a lot of people drink bottled water because it's better and safer than what comes out of their taps.
So, not all fans of bottled water are mindless slaves - but I still reckon a lot of people drink the brand and the image rather than the actual water. On the other hand, I reject the widespread idea that all water tastes the same.
Urban tap water smells and tastes of – at best rather more than water and, in my experience, makes lousy tea. I go so far as to bring bottles of my own well water with me to our Dublin flat in order to feed my serious tea habit.
The water that comes out of the tap at home scored remarkably highly in a blind tasting of that I conducted a couple of years ago. The waters, provided by my wife Johann in anonymous bottles, really repaid attention in that each of them revealed a distinct taste. I proved, to myself at any rate, that you simply can't claim that all water tastes the same.
For the purposes of the blind tasting, I stuck with still water. Amongst the sparklers, I like Badoit, San Pellegrino and, above all, Vichy Catalan.
These are the notes I made while tasting. I appended the brand names when they were revealed to me:
This is pleasant enough, very clean but not much character. A little flat or neutral but perfectly pleasant to drink. Probably good with food as it would not interfere.
The word that comes to mind here is "lively". It fills the mouth and you certainly notice it on your palate. Quite fresh for a still water. Not at all bland.
Tesco own brand
This is quite crisp, almost a touch acidic. It's very refreshing, with a brittle kind of brightness to it. If this were a wine, I'd be using words like "backbone". I like it.
Very similar to the water immediately before but with the characteristics in slightly sharper focus. I'd be very happy to drink this and I reckon it would be good with the richer food dishes. It has a bit of "cut" to it.
Very round, very mouthfilling, almost a fat kind of water. It makes its presence felt on the palate because it seems to have quite a bit of weight but in terms of just taste it’s pretty neutral.
Deep River Rock
This one is a bit flat but is perfectly pleasant to drink. Nothing assertive in terms of character. A little bit dull and flat.
Carrigeen Hill tap water - from our own well
Very refreshing. This one has a bit of "zing" to it, nicely thirst-quenching. Again, if I were to use wine terminology, I would say that this one has a bit of backbone and character.