Many of my fondest memories revolve around water. With my eyes closed, I can taste the tang of the fluoridated water at my grandmother's clapboard home in Massachusetts, and I can hear the clinking of empty glass bottles in our cellar in Evian-les-Bains, and I can smell the rust and iron funk of the chalky deposits that had calcified around the taps in Ras Al Khaimah, where a briny film coated our skin like shrinkwrap after we had bathed.
We were creatures of habit. Slender bottles of Masafi took up permanent residence on my childhood bedside table. As far as I could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to our choice of table water. I was a compulsive and routine-obsessed child; after being served Jeema at a birthday party, I thought to ask my father why we always bought Masafi. "It's the lightest water," he responded, and his pithiness was convincing enough.
Years later, after a sudden and unceremonious switch to Al Ain water, I wanted a reason, and again was blithely placated: "It's just better." Years later, Al Ain was succeeded by two dozen cases of Volvic that towered by the kitchen door, but those were feverish days, and the tryst with Volvic was as ephemeral as my concurrent, free promotional subscription to French Vogue: gone before I had a chance to properly appreciate it.
"Tap water will be fine," is my standard response in restaurants. Always still, hold the ice. Any space the bubbles occupy could be better saved for food. Nowadays, boutique waters crowd sommelier's lists, sometimes requiring menus all of their own. In spite of their novelty, the contents of restaurants' burgeoning water menus are lost on me, and though I am open to esoteric new experiences, especially where dining is concerned, the thought of painstakingly pairing different varieties of water with food frankly makes me feel suspicious.
The truth is that I am not obsessive about drinking bottled water in the UAE unless I know the cheaper alternative to be of dubious origin. Granted, my standards may be lower than those of many other people, and my stomach a fair bit stronger than most. However, I am not any more resistant than the next romantic to the bucolic image of my water percolating through permeable rocks for 500 years. Much of the world's tap water is quite pure, having been filtered and decontaminated, and ironically, it frequently contains less bacteria than bottled water - old plumbing and scabby water tanks notwithstanding. And if you thought bottled water was better, think again. As it turns out, bacteria in water from natural sources can multiply inside bottles at a rapid rate... nasty stuff.
Despite this, the UAE has the world's highest consumption of bottled water per individual, due in part to general squeamishness towards our potable water supplies. A number of clever companies have begun selling our own purified tap water back to us in bottles - which is actually a comparatively eco-friendly alternative to having thousands of litres imported from the Alps. In an effort to both demystify bottled water and to explore the history of my own arbitrary biases and brand attachments, I conducted a blind tasting of 16 of the most widely available bottled waters in the UAE, plus two wild cards for good measure. Five tasters were instructed to evaluate factors such as colour, minerality, acidity, carbonation, balance, structure, lightness and mouthfeel. In addition to myself, participants consisted of my parents and siblings, an unsuspecting but accommodating bunch easily manipulated by my promise to reward them with homemade pie. They gave each water a score out of 20, then the numbers were tallied to create a total score out of 100 points. The glassware used were Spiegelau Authentis lead-free crystal water goblets, cleaned with vinegar and a linen cloth, never tainted with the scent or flavour of detergent. The recommended serving temperature for water is 12°C. I ignored this guideline and served everything at room temperature, in part because I believe that it provides optimal conditions for flavour to be judged, but mostly because there really wasn't room in the fridge for so many bottles
500ml for Dh3.50 From the south shore of Lake Geneva comes the Middle East's preeminent imported mineral water. We described its distinct flavour as "chalky", "milky" and "cloying" with one taster finding that it "coats the mouth and tongue in a salty-sweet mineral bath, not unlike raw camel milk". With a pH of 7.18, Evian is on par with wilted spinach, clams and lobster. Its calcium and magnesium levels also mean it is fairly hard water.
500ml for Dh5.50 This Austrian mineral water from the Sextner Dolomites is one in a line-up of high-performance designer waters. Sold in glass to keep the supplementary oxygen contained, Oxygizer is a little gassy when agitated, and tastes full and medicinal in the mouth. "Awful," writes one taster. This could just be the subtle effervescence recalling Epsom salts, but for now, I concur.
500ml Dh3.70 Drawn from deep within the grassy hillsides of Auvergne in France, Volvic has a distinctive minerality credited to the spring's neighbouring volcano. This is the quintessence of refreshment: crisp, bone-dry finish. Cooling and vegetal, with a perfectly neutral value of pH 7, identical to that of distilled water.
500ml for 70 fils Drawn from springs in Hatta, Jeema has CO2 added to it in order to lowerthe water's pH, to make it more palatable. Furthermore, the company website promises that Jeema water "is only exposed to the air, throughout its entire production process, for less than quarter of a second". My curiosity is piqued, but until I have tasted vacuum-safe Jeema through a siphon, I am going to optimistically assume that its forgettable flavour profile is a result of exposure to the elements.
500ml for Dh 0.60 Al Ain's artesian wells yield the UAE's second-favourite bottled water, a brand that outsells the competition in Abu Dhabi and has one of the lowest concentrations of sodium on the market. In spite of this, it leaves some of us less than thrilled: "Slight sweetness and astringency. Can water be tannic? This leaves my tongue feeling slightly stripped."
500ml for 80 fils Gulfa's parent company operates out of Ajman and produces mineral water under the brand names of Viva, Gulfa and Spring. It also offers private label services to clients such as Spinneys. "Heavy, heavy, heavy," writes one taster. On the other hand, another taster, formerly a Gulfa naysayer, liked this sample best of all.
500ml for 70 fils The dark horse of the competition, Oasis is plant-treated seawater that has been desalinated, dechlorinated, passed through an activated carbon filter via reverse osmosis, and then enhanced with added minerals. Discernible metallic taste, but the favourite of my father, a self-described water snob.
600ml for 75 fils Like Aquafina and Oasis, Nestlé Pure Life is another in a growing line-up of purified waters not sourced from natural springs. Nestlé refers to this class of waters as "value-added". Not to be confused with Nestlé's Aquarel, which does, in fact, come from seven different springs.
Triggered memories of kicking dirt around a dusty schoolyard. From Wadi Tanuf in the wilayat of Nizwa, Oman. Metallic at room temperature, heavy - and wonderful- when chilled.
500ml for Dh3.95 "Not a big deal. Tastes like local water," writes one panel member. Previously I had always found Panna to have a distinctive silvery, cucumbery taste. Sure enough, though, take away the sleek glass bottle and its all smoke and mirrors. Panna takes its name from the Villa Panna in the serene Apennines Mountains of Tuscany, and is also owned by Nestlé.
500ml for 75 fils Classic. The perennial favourite nails the blind taste test. Could Masafi be the little black dress of local waters? It's unadulterated, untampered, clean, reliable and refreshing. The water comes from numerous springs in Masafi, a village on the edge of the mountainous Hajar region of Ras Al Khaimah. In this case, the name says it all. It's Arabic for "pure water".
500ml for Dh2.75 The only flavoured water I picked up, but how to resist? In the past, I have been offered rosewater to dribble into the plain variety, but this represents frivolity in a whole new way. L'eau de air freshener d'une toilette publique, anyone?
600ml for 65 fils Like Oasis and Nestlé Pure Life, Aquafina is treated mains water that has been artificially mineralised. Not much more to say.
500ml for 70 fils Lovely, silky, alkaline. If there were such a thing as Evian Lite, this would be it. "Interesting," writes one taster. "Such a creamy water," says another. Arwa comes from a mineral spring in Yemen and has a pH value of 7.6.
500ml for 60 fils May have been improperly stored. Tasted musty. Tacky mouthfeel.
1l for Dh12.95 The gorgeous frosted glass ensured that Duchy Royal Deeside was the first sample to be polished off after the tasting was over. As it turns out, people judge a water by its bottle. Very seductive. Still, an offensive mark-up, considering what it sells for in the UK - especially as it is already expensive there. Bottled at the Pannanich Wells, in the highland country of Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
500ml for Dh2.75 A little sweet, a little salty. Clean finish. Cooling, even at room temperature. Viscous. Very nice. Perhaps a bit pricey for what it is.
Zamzam is reminiscent of a saltwater bay. With a pH of 7.9-8, it is extremely high in sodium, which causes profuse salivation. Worth the price of admission all its own.