University of Alberta professor William Shotyk has been studying the same water for nearly 30 years and the more he studies it, the more it amazes him. The subject of his lifelong fascination is the Alliston aquifer, an underground water source in the vicinity of Springwater, Ont. The water there is confoundingly pure – cleaner than ancient arctic ice.
“This water is a miracle of science,” he says. “You will not find better water on the planet.”
Violet Mokri and her husband, Leslie, residents of nearby Waubaushene, Ont., regularly make the 40-kilometre trek to stockpile this water from an artesian well off County Road 27 near Elmvale. They say it’s not only delicious, it also makes the food they cook – and their coffee – taste better. “It’s the best water we’ve ever had,” Violet says. “I bought Culligan water and I couldn’t drink it, the taste was so bad.” Chris Etzinger, owner of Elmvale Bakery, also uses it and says it makes noticeably better bread.
As the water’s renown spreads, businesses have latched onto it as a marketing point. Toronto’s Georgian Bay Spirit Co., and Spirit of York Distillery Co,. use the water and have claimed it factors into the quality of their spirits.
Producers of food and drink are keen to build romanticism around their water sources. Maker’s Mark uses water from a spring-fed lake, claiming that “Kentucky bourbon gets its wonderful taste, in part, from the local water, which has been filtered naturally through limestone.” The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company says the flavour of its sake is “enhanced by using a special spring water chosen among the abundant water resources of Northern Ontario.” Many pasta makers say their use of pure water – from the Lattari Mountains in Italy, for example – makes their product superior. And water is often cited as the most important ingredient in beer, which is probably why B.C.’s Rossland Beer Company is proud of its fresh mountain water.
Still, common sense suggests that even the best water tastes mostly like nothing. As Aristotle once wrote, “the natural substance water per se tends to be tasteless.” It seems dubious to believe that water, the embodiment of neutrality in flavour, could make a noteworthy difference as an ingredient. Sure, clean water is crucial, but is all the hype around specially sourced water legitimate? Is there something verifiably better about it than, say, filtered tap water?
Élyse Lambert, a Montreal-based master sommelier, says water carries its own flavour profile depending on where it’s sourced – though you might need a trained palate to fully appreciate it. “For most people water is water, but there is a slight difference,” she says. “It comes from the minerals. Some water is soft on the palate and some is harder on the palate. There is a textural component and a salinity brought on by certain compounds.”
Local residents hold a deep reverence for the water from the Alliston aquifer, describing it as “magical,” “alive” or containing some intangible vitality. Its source is the hilly Simcoe Uplands moraine, which is hit by rainwater that seeps downward through maple roots, humus, gravel and clay. By the time it reaches the aquifer, it has taken on a unique spectrum of desirable minerals from the landscape while having been scrubbed of impurities such as lead or zinc. The water tastes vaguely sweet, free of the bouquet of chlorine one might find in tap water.
But for Louis Savard, an Ottawa-based water expert, the importance of water goes far beyond taste. A program leader with the River Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies aquatic ecosystems, he says water is an infinitely complex cocktail of minerals, elements and ions, all of which affect the chemistry of cooking.
“It may be odourless, it may be clear, but it’s certainly not empty,” Savard says. “You’ve got chloride, magnesium, calcium, sodium and carbonates, and then there are trace elements like iron, phosphorus and nitrogen. There’s a lot to think about, and every single one of those will have an impact on different processes.”
Andy Bramburger, a Canadian researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says the mineral content of water is crucial in fermentation. Calcium and magnesium, he says, control enzymatic reactions and contribute to yeast health. On a more basic level, minerality also has an effect on something as simple as creating stock.
“When you’re boiling water, it’s a dance party of ions,“ he says. “Having the right ions in that water is probably going to make for a tastier stock.”
Water has a fingerprint, he adds, which can impart a distinct sense of place and time – a phenomenon otherwise known as terroir. Sapporo beer brewed at the Sleeman brewery in Canada, he says, tastes more like Sleeman than its Japanese counterpart, primarily because of the influence of the local water.
“To me, Sleeman beers have a characteristic flavour,” he says. “There’s probably some ion in the water that is imparting a flavour so unique that it’s detectable even when they use a different recipe to mimic a beer from a different part of the world.”
It is an oft-repeated claim that New York City’s mineral-rich tap water creates superior dough, and according to Smithsonian Magazine writer Helen Thompson, there is some merit to that notion. “Hard water fortifies gluten, the protein responsible for toughness in bagels," she writes. “Using super soft water, on the other hand, turns dough to goo.”
Toronto chef Nathan Isberg is fully appreciative of water’s role in cooking, even if its effect is not easily summarized in words. During a recent foray to Iqaluit, he drank from the Sylvia Grinnell river and was reminded just how mysterious water can be.
“There’s an energy to it, a vital aspect that’s hard to describe,” he says. “It’s absolutely true that water creates a difference. But the benefits can be negligible relative to the cost on local aquifers and the ability for locals to access their water. There’s a real tension there.”
All of which goes to say that while water certainly makes for convenient marketing, it’s also a legitimate culinary tool. Good water, with a good selection of minerals, creates good things.
Back in the Springwater region, local resident Bonnie Pigeon says she’s suddenly finding silt in her well water. She suspects it’s due to the activity of a quarry located at the moraine nearby. The quarry is planning to expand its operations, leading her, other locals and Shotyk to believe the pristine water is under threat.
“This water is an intelligence test for our society,” Shotyk says. “If we’re intelligent, we’ll be drinking this water for generations to come.”