When about ten years ago Berlin’s first-class Adlon Hotel named its sommelier Arno Steguweit Europe’s first water sommelier, the world sat up and took note. Consequently – noblesse oblige – the hotel drew up its own water menu listing over fifty vintages from fifteen different countries, presenting its guests with the challenge of not only finding the right wine but also selecting a suitable type of water. Prices of up to €130 for a liter of water also proved to be something of a challenge for the diner’s wallet – at least for the average consumer. Restaurants in other luxury hotels soon followed suit, particularly in the German capital, and caused a real hype. Which water best suits which culinary highlight? How exotic and varied must the range of waters be in order that guests feel suitably hydrated?
Steguweit wasn’t Europe’s sole water sommelier for long; at the end of 2011 a union of water sommeliers was even founded, under the umbrella of which sixty members from Germany and beyond now campaign for cult(ural) beverage mineral water.
One such sommelier (or sommelière, to give the profession its female form) is Soledad Sichert from Windhagen in the Siebengebirge region of Germany. We asked her if she could tell us what’s left of the water hype of the '00s and how she and her colleagues earn their living now that establishments like the Adlon have long abolished their water sommelier and water menu.
We meet her in the lobby bar of the Kameha Grand Hotel in Bonn, whose neo-baroque interior was fashioned by Dutch designer-rock star Marcel Wanders. In this eccentric posh hostelry, a veritable ode to hedonism, one would expect a long list of fancy mineral waters to be featured in the range of culinary delights – in vain. No more than five different brands have made it onto the beverage menu, each of which we’d be able to buy in the supermarket across the block. We’re therefore almost pleased that Soledad Sichert has brought her very own treasure trove (or case) of water curiosities from all over the world with her which she places in front of us by way of an opener. The 45-year-old from Argentina has spent almost half her life in Germany and is married to a Bavarian. After all this time she feels so German that it’s her husband who’s the real Latino of the two, she says with a laugh as we meet.
“At home I always have seven to eight different bottles open. I never drink the same water in the morning as I do in the afternoon or evening.”
Disappointing water experience
She’s lost none of her temperament, however, and we can easily see this petite lady venting her disappointment in the Adlon, as she did recently. “I of course went there because of their famous water menu. When I asked for it, the waiters first looked totally dumbfounded. I then went with them to a computer and googled; the Adlon was one of the first hits. No, we haven’t had a water menu like that for ages, was the answer. And the handful of waters they still have is not a selection I’d have to go to Berlin for.” She still found something of interest, however; there’s a water which requires filling into a decanter and not into a bottle, for which a stylish metal spout has been developed especially for use in the high-class restaurant trade. But Soledad Sichert was out of luck; the water placed on the table had a despicable screw cap and her inquiries were met with a shrug of the shoulders. “This is not something I’d expect from the Adlon. If they don’t do it, then who does?” she then asks herself, slightly disillusioned.
The regional aspect is important ...
The price wouldn’t have been an issue here. When asked what her price limit is for a bottle of water, she quickly replies, “I don’t have one. If I pay a suitably high price for my food in a first-class restaurant, I’m not going to start arguing about why the water costs a little bit more or less. It’s simply part of the deal as far as I’m concerned.”A mineral water does have to meet certain requirements, however – and not just regarding its taste. “The product must naturally also be visually impressive and tell some kind of story.”
When Soledad Sichert compiles a water menu for a restaurant or holds a water tasting session, she always also explains why she’s opted for the one or other particular mineral water. Regional aspects also play a major role, as does how producers treat their home region. “For example, in Saxony there’s a mineral water bottling plant that holds a big mineral water party once a year. Besides the many other highlights of the event the locals can drink as much of their local mineral water as they want or can. I find this important.” She herself is pretty loyal to the mineral waters of Germany. “With over five hundred styles of water bottled in Germany it must be possible for everyone to find exactly what they’re looking for. Why should a regional product have to travel all over the world?”
... but has its limitations
However, Soledad Sichert also reminds us that the debate over regional products also has its limitations. “Try and spend a whole day just eating produce from Germany. Or only drink wines that come from your local region – if wine is actually grown there. And then please tell me what you’ve experienced. Why should we apply more stringent criteria to water of all things?”
Exotic? Depends on your standpoint
Questioned as to what she thinks about the hype over exotic water, Sichert herself asks, “What’s an exotic water? Take this water from Fiji Islands, for example. If I lived there, this would be the kind of water I drink every day. Ultimately, it’s a matter of your particular standpoint. I personally sometimes have water from Argentina – for me, that’s not exotic but a piece of home. If you like, bananas are also exotic, even though they’ve become as just as normal to us as apples or pears. The question is whether I have to have it – and what distance which product has to cover at what cost because I don’t want to do without it.”
How did she come to be so closely involved with water? Soledad Sichert spent a lot of time traveling as a child, also to countries where clean drinking water was a problem. “If you can’t drink tap water because it poses a serious risk to your health, you develop a very different feeling for water there than you do here where it’s available to everybody as a matter of course.” Even at the age of ten she found it strange that you had to buy water in order to be able to drink it – and that water tastes different depending on where you happen to be. All this has sharpened her awareness from an early age.
Water makes people
If Soledad Sichert is to be believed, a region is strongly characterized by its water. She thinks this is also true of Germany. “The further south you go, the more naturally lively the water is and the more spirited the people. The further north you travel, the more placid the mineral water becomes – and the people, too. I don’t know if there’s an explanation for this, but this is at least what I think.”
The question as to which flavors can be tasted in water is met with raised eyebrows: “Hopefully none, because then there’s something wrong with the water! All you should be able to taste in a water is its mineral content, that is the sodium chloride which gives it its degree of saltiness, hydrogen carbonate perhaps, or magnesium and calcium, both of which are clearly discernible. You’ll find sulfates or iron unpleasant – not only can you taste them, you can also smell them.”
“For me a water from Argentina isn’t exotic but a piece of home.”
Which water for which dish?
And which water would she suggest for which type of food? To start with definitely a highly carbonated mineral water, she suggests; this stimulates the papillae and prepares the tongue and palate for the pending delicacies. After this anything is basically allowed, much of which is a matter of taste. Often a water with a medium or low level of carbonation is chosen as an accompaniment to white wine, for instance, with still water more often served with red wine. However, you must always explore your very subjective preferences. Sichert herself is a big fan of desserts, for example, which she likes to contrast with a more salty mineral water.
Soledad Sichert likes choice and variety in her private life, too. “At home I always have seven to eight different bottles open. In the morning I never drink the same water as I do in the afternoon or evening. This is part of my daily routine.” She personally values water in glass bottles – and is prepared to make sacrifices for it. “As I always say, some people go to the gym; I drag cases of water around!” She’s therefore all the more grateful for the invention of smaller cases holding fewer glass bottles. Her current favorite is a product from the Saarland. “I find the bottle so pretty – which is important to me – and like the story of the countess who made this spring accessible to the region during the 17th century before it was run by a congregation until into the nineties. I’ve never actually been there myself but will probably go there sometime in the future.”
PET versus glass – a matter of taste?
We also want to know if you can taste the difference between water in glass bottles and water drunk from PET containers. Her answer comes like a shot. “For me, water from a PET bottle tastes slightly sweet, especially when it’s a very inexpensive brand from a discounter.” She still has to provide proof of this, however; when at the end of our conversation we wanted to try two variations on the same premium water, the only difference we could agree on was in the temperature. The water in the glass bottle came chilled straight from the hotel bar; the PET bottle in her collection was at room temperature. Under these conditions it’s not possible to make any fine distinctions in taste. Is the issue of glass or PET then not rather a question of conviction? Soledad Sichert smiles and remains silent.