Reactions to an interview on national television with Irish bottled-water pioneers Ballygowan in the 1980s resounded with exclamations of incredulity. Just who in their right mind would pay for a bottle of water? Who, in a country boasting a tax rate of 56%, would be so stupid as to hand over their hard-earned money for a water you could get for free from a well? A ludicrous notion, indeed. So what if our French friends were squandering their francs on Perrier and Evian (try spelling Evian backwards….)? So what if our Italian soul mates were glugging down their lire in the form of Fiuggi or San Pellegrino? The Irish would never fall for that lark. But we did. And people the world over fell for it, too.
Now, thirty years later, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have created a nightmare whereby we have far too many choices. We can choose between Australia’s Tasmanian Rain, Belgium’s Chaudfontaine, and Croatia’s Jana. We can choose between still and sparkling. We can choose between glass and plastic. And we can also choose to pay for water or do without.
Thwarted by a tap
Trying to get plain old tap water these days is like trying to get blood from a particularly insipid turnip. In Lithuania last week, I was the only one at a table of six who managed to persuade the waiter to give me a glass of tap water. I was playing the environmental card: saying no to plastic; saying no to an ever-increasing carbon footprint; saying no the sheer ridiculousness of paying for water. Here in Budapest, my pleas for csapvíz are growing more strident. What started off as a simple request, morphed into a plaintive cry and is now on the edge of becoming a frustrated hysteric.
If the tap water is bad, if it is undrinkable, then yes, I will pay for bottled water. But even then I have certain expectations. I read somewhere lately that new discoveries in astrophysics suggest that water is not native to Earth but rather was imported from the edges of our solar system as ice trapped in comets. The first ‘delivery’ is estimated to have happened more than four billion years ago. So while ‘importing’ water is not exactly a new phenomenon, I still want my bottled water to have been bottled locally…if not in the same city then at least in the same country. I simply cannot get my head around people buying water in a bottle that has been flown half-way around the world for their drinking pleasure. We’re not talking vintage port here, people…it’s water! Or is it?
Swizzled by a spring
In his book, Fine waters, Michael Mascha points out that water is actually not water. At least the premium stuff isn’t. It’s like wine. It has terroir and it is a natural product that originates from a particular place with unique properties. Perhaps the debate about plastic or glass might be the equivalent of the furore around screw tops or corks. While you might serve your champagne at a refreshing 6°C, the optimal temperature for serving sparkling water is 13°C. Forget your pinot gris, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. When it comes to water, we’re talking spring, artesian, well, and glacier. Remove the young, dry, sweet, mature and full-bodied adjectives and replace with still, effervescent, light, classic, and bold. And when at a water tasting (you wouldn’t believe me if I told you of the images this conjures up), remember to replace aromatic, balanced, crisp, and fleshy, with short, long, focused or wide. When, oh when, did we get so pretentious? When did a glass of water become more than a glass of water? When exactly did we start to forsake the faucet?
So while a large portion of the population pays for the privilege of drinking bottled water, I’m drawing the line at paying for tap water! Unless, of course, it’s for a good cause. UNICEF started the Tap Project in New York back in 2007. Participating restaurants ask their customers to pay $1 or more for water they usually get for free. Just €1 is enough to provide clean drinking water for a child for 40 days. According to UNICEF figures, waterborne illness is the second leading cause of death for children under five years of age; over 900 million people lack access to clean water. If you own a restaurant in Budapest and you’re reading this… why not try doing something similar here next year. World Water Week is 20–26 March 2011. You’ve plenty of time to get organised. In the meantime, I’ll go back to practising my Hungarian – maybe pohar hideg víz might do the trick.
First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2010