Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eau Zone



Can you imagine drinking pure spring water straight from the tap? Well, that’s what we do here in Grenoble – we also shower in it, brush our teeth with it and do the washing up in it. The water comes from a spring - la source de Rochefort – which bubbles up between the Mount Rochefort and the river Drac, south of the town and is filtered naturally through a hundred metres or so of alluvial deposits. The reservoir lies in a protected zone of nearly 3000 hectares – a beautiful nature reserve where house construction, industry and the use of pesticides is forbidden but walking through forest glades and observing the flora and fauna is actively encouraged. And while Grenoble water is untreated, the rest of France is having to drink something reminiscent of their local swimming pool on a crowded Saturday afternoon because the Ministry of Health has intentionally over-chlorinated the water supply in case terrorists contaminate it with botulism. The sensible people of Grenoble were not having any of this nonsense and refused the treatment – besides, any terrorist wanting to contaminate this water supply would have to be pretty good at orienteering and cross country running…



Grenoble Daily Photo




The French are the world’s second biggest consumers of bottled water (the Italians are the first). The average person gets through 124 litres a year, which is about a bottle and a half a week. We British manage just 14 litres a year – and most of that is probably drunk in one go on the same morning-after-the-New-Year’s-Eve-party. Mineral water – eau minérale – offers health-giving properties that are recognised by law. This means that strict rules are enforced at the site of the spring, as the quality has to be consistent. The water must come from a single source - of which there are 1,200 in France – and temperature, mineral content, taste and visual appearance are monitored closely to ensure they do not vary. Although I am usually suspicious of what I would term fanciful cures, I admit that I have gulped down several litres of a well-known mineral water in my time, which is supposed to help you slim by acting as a diuretic. I know full well this is nonsense. What it really means is that you go to the loo five times an hour and pay for the privilege – you could get the same results with a gallon of tea and a couple of fig rolls. Nevertheless, it is high in calcium so it is good for your bones. Other mineral waters make different claims. Vichy water is good for your complexion (you have to drink it, not wash in it), Hépar water is good for your nerves and fizzy water like Salvetat is good for the digestion. A well-known manufacturer of slimming products has even brought out a ‘zero calorie’ water…and yes, I thought it was a joke too but I’ve seen people buy it...




I’ve always believed water to be a pretty boring element but in fact it’s good for all sorts of things. Spa towns (named after the Belgian town of Spa) have been around since Roman times and have fallen in and out of popularity ever since. You no longer have to be a wealthy aristocrat to take the waters – the doctor can prescribe a three-week cure and the Sécurité Sociale will reimburse you. In Uriage-les-Bains, a thermal resort a few miles into the mountains around Grenoble, you can treat your eczema, sinusitis or rheumatism just by taking a bath. It is something to do with sulphur and arsenic, says the brochure reassuringly. You can also drink the water, have it injected or get pulverised with it – an experience similar to being set on by riot police with water cannons. My rheumatic mother-in-law has been on a cure twice and each time she has come back exhausted and aching all over but adamant that it has done her the world of good.

She's probably right. But I still think the best use for water is to make a Nice Cup of Tea which, as we all know, cures everything. So I'll just go and pop the kettle on...

12 comments:

Roads said...

Thanks for that, Gigi - that's an intriguing subject for a geologist like me.

The health-giving properties of most mineral waters are massively overdone, and you can read all sorts of pseudo-medical rubbish on those labels. But the marketing is simply first class - it's really a fantastic case of 'The Emperor's Clothes' for the modern era.

Several well-known mineral waters are notoriously low in minerals - I think that Volvic from Louise's beloved Auvergne might well be one. Such springs actually have to receive special authorisation from the French government to call themselves 'mineral waters' at all. Volvic is supposed to 'give energy' but where it comes from is hard to imagine, since it's virtually pure H2O and almost nothing else.

If you check the composition of most mineral waters, you can tell a lot about the geology of their catchment areas. Those rich in calcium tend to come from limestone country, whilst elevated levels of sodium and sulphates often indicate that there is some rock salt or anhydrite somewhere in the system, as there often is within the Alps and around the borders of the Mediterranean, or indeed anywhere in Britain where Triassic or rocks are to be found.

The sulphate in particular can give an unpleasant taste and smell - and many of the classic springs like Bath have thrived on this, presumably on the basis that suffering must be good for you in the same way that blood-letting was also regarded as a route to health, once upon a time.

Those waters from basaltic volcanic landscapes (like the Massif Central) tend to be very poor in minerals, simply because those rocks don't dissolve very readily into water (we're talking in relative terms here - I'm not suggesting that limestone is all that soluble, although if you go to Cheddar Gorge or the Ardêche then you might disagree).

You are right that tap water often has an unpleasant taste due to chlorination. Grenoble doesn't chlorinate, but does the city flourinate its water supply ? Many people are against that practice, but in its defence it has massively improved dental health in the UK at least (although at what other cost we aren't that sure).

The presence of pollutants in mineral water is a growing concern. There was the famous case at Perrier, where benzine got into the water (not good). Another problem occurred some years ago with Henniez, a sparkling mineral water which I used to enjoy in Switzerland and famously suffered at one time from a high concentration of nitrates. That particular mineral water comes from sandstones of the Swiss plain, and over-zealous use of fertilisers by the Mittelland farmers was reported to have led to a progressive contamination of the aquifer. Which was slightly worrying.

The long-distance transport of contaminants within our aquifers is a real issue for hydrogeologists, who have to deal with problems resulting from waste repositories of unknown age and composition, where people have thoughtlessly buried nasty stuff over years gone by (or sadly just last week). Out of sight is not necessarily out of mouth, at least in the long run.

Such thoughts are always a concern when considering decisions around nuclear power, since without any possibility of treating nuclear waste at present, we (or at least those living close to Sellafield) are left with the certainty of drinking it in low concentrations at some point in the future, since the certainty is that water flows through all rocks, given time.

Badoit is probably my own favourite when I'm in France. The combination of slightly saltiness (sodium) and strong carbonation are refreshingly thirst-quenching on a warm day.

But for all of the pleasure involved, it does seem quite ridiculous that we all drink so much exotic mineral water.

Transporting such quantities of heavy fluid and all those bottles over hundreds (or even thousands) of miles by lorry and plane is simply one of the most energy-daft enterprises you could ever imagine. We already have the concept of 'food miles', but how many of us have ever really thought about 'mineral water miles'? Next time you find a bottle of Evian in a California supermarket, it might be worth a thought.

So despite the refreshing qualities of San Pellegrino to go with my next Italian meal, maybe I really should stick more to logic and reasoning and just ask for tap water instead.

After all, I could simply let it stand a few minutes to vent all that chlorine, and then just drop a quarter of an Alka Seltzer tablet into the jug to obtain precisely the desired composition and taste effect.

But perhaps it wouldn't be quite so chic ...

Mountain Dweller said...

We also have our own natural spring water. It is so "hard" that it furs up the kettle on a regular basis!

CJ said...

Funny thing water...back in SA we had great water (our own fountain) but when we arrived in London the water was awful and we started to incorporate bottled water into the budget. Now here in Scotland we are back to lovely natural water (not as good as your's must be)and a decent cup of tea :)I so enjoy your blog and the interesting comments.

Gigi said...

Roads - I think your comment was more interesting than my blog post! I don't think the French are too keen on fluoridisation (is that a word?). Certainly, the water here has nothing added and the French have bad teeth... I agree that marketing plays an important role - unfortunately, I am a sucker for marketing. The rational part of me knows the truth but the other part of me laps it all up...

Mountain Dweller - do you get bits of lime floating in your tea? I do...

cj - I only really realised that the water I was drinking was so good when I went to Aix-en-Proence and drank some there. It was horrid...

Louise said...

When I first moved to France, I lived near Volvic, so we bathed in it, washed the car with it and watered the garden with it! The water here in the Swiss Alpes is okay but does taste a bit funny in the winter when the ressources are stretched to their limit. I still buy mineral water for drinking though.

angela said...

I certainly didn't know that about over chlorination of the water. I always learn something from your posts and, yes, I'll join you in a cup of tea..PG Tips if possible.
Angela

Mlle Smith said...

It's strange, but I actually dislike Evian water...like, I REALLY dislike the stuff. It tastes so horrible to me. I do love Dasani water and there's another called Aquafina that I find yummy. Both are "purified" so that may be the reason for their exquisite taste. Can I find either of those waters here in France? I'm curious, now...

Oh, and I just love how informative your posts are, great post!

Gigi said...

Louise - I'm surprised. I suppose I imagined Switzerland to have lovely water, what with all those pure mountain streams...

angela - I get PG Tips here from the local Indian (or Pakistani - I'm afraid I don't know) store...they also sell Marmite and Bird's custard as well as every curry paste under the sun...

mlle smith - Coca cola has been trying to sell their Dasani water here, apparently - but I can't seem them having much success as they have so many other bottled waters to compete with. Also, Dasani (and Aquafina) are just purified tap water with a few minerals added! I've read that Dasani tastes a bit like Hépar - maybe you should try that?

Louise said...

the water is good here - meaning that it doesn't have any nasty aftertaste of huge doses of chlorine but obviously in the winter they scrape the bottom of the barrel as it were!

However, excellent for making tea! Drink Yorkshire Tea myself!

Actually bottled water that claims to cure you of various ills, doesn't really do that. You have to go to the spa in question and drink the water from the springs - Vichy for example has 20 odd different springs as far as I remember and the 'curistes' drink a little glass of water from a certain spring a couple of times a day. This is the water that has all the minerals in it that can do some good - if you believe in that sort of thing!

Tinsie said...

I once shared a flat with two water pollution control engineers. Neither of them touched bottled water. Both drank from the tap. I figured if tap water is good enough for them, it's good enough for me ;-)
Having said this, I'm in France this weekend and thought I'd do the French thing, so I had some Badoit this morning at breakfast. It was nice, but I can still taste it half an hour later - not sure I like the idea of water with an aftertaste!

bluevicar said...

I used to buy mineral waters...but then I got a Brita filter. I'm almost embarassed to raise the issue in such an erudite post and set of comments. I assume that it does a good job ridding the Antibes tap water of various debris...at least, I hope so.

Meilleurs voeux!!

roger said...

Hmm - you can't beat the idea of fresh, spring water. We have a little spring down the lane opposite the lavanderie in our hamlet and it's treat stocking up on eau in our empty mineral water bottles. (As do all the locals).