Covering nearly three-quarters of the Earth's surface to a depth of up to seven miles, it is one of the most abundant natural substances and free to anyone who cares to scoop it up and take it away. Yet if one entrepreneur has his way, gourmet restaurants could soon start stocking their larders with sea water – and paying for the privilege.
Chefs eager to enhance the authentic taste of their bisques and bouillabaisses will soon have the opportunity to buy purified sea water from the Outer Hebrides. Launched at the Taste of Edinburgh festival yesterday, Acquamara claims to be the world's first designer sea water and will retail at £4.95 per three-litres.
It is the idea of Andy Inglis, a former United Nations official, who was inspired after helping his daughter research a project for her homework. He concedes that some people might be reluctant to part with a fiver for something they can get for nothing, but hopes the project will reap dividends for the local economy in the tiny Hebridean island of Berneray. There it is extracted from the sea and passed through a filter which removes any particles of sand, dirt and rust before being brought by tanker to Dunbar where it is tested to ensure it passes European standards for safe drinking water and then decanted into a wine-type box. "I think it's going to be seen as a bit cheeky, but if I can be a bit cheeky and create jobs in the Hebrides than I'm happy being a bit cheeky," Mr Inglis said.
Mr Inglis, 49, who works part-time for the Department for International Development, said it would be the aspiring MasterChef contestant that was most likely to buy the product.
"For those who like food done the proper way this is going to be a great product," he said. "For the sort of chef who gets up at 5am in the morning to go and source proper mushrooms, for that high-end restaurant market, it's going to be a must-have.
"We live by the sea, so I tried cooking a few things with sea water and I couldn't believe the difference it made in the flavours. It was remarkable. So I started to look around and see if this might be viable as a business and spoke to some people within the industry who seemed to think it would be possible."
Some leading chefs have already tried and liked what they have tasted of the new product, which has long been a feature of ancient sailors' cookbooks, as well as a staple ingredient in some of the world's best seafood restaurants. Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant named last month as the best restaurant in the world, offers langoustine cooked in sea water as one of its starters.
Roy Brett, head chef and proprietor at the Edinburgh seafood restaurant Ondine, was impressed after trying it. "The taste is amazing. What it does to food is remarkable," he said. "I've been cooking a lot of shellfish in it as well as other dishes, and it just gives them a fantastic edge, and a real salty tang of the sea."
Tom Kitchin, the Michelin-starred Edinburgh chef, said he was also attracted to the idea. "What could be fresher than storing and cooking with natural sea water from our Scottish shores," he said. The water can also be sprayed on salads and used to cook vegetables as a healthy alternative to salt.
A lot of bottle
*When King Henri II of France tasted water from Spa in the valley of Ardennes in Belgium, he believed it had healing qualities. He began exporting it in 1583 and bottled water was born.
*In 1789, the Marquis de Lessert had a similar experience in the town of Evian-les-Bains in south-east France, when he claimed the spring water cured his kidney stones. Local doctors began prescribing the "miraculous water" as a health remedy. The spring's owner began selling it in bottles in 1826.
*Last July, a small town in south-east Australia put itself on the map by outlawing sales of bottled water. Officials in Bundanoon cited environmental impact as the reason for the ban. They removed bottled water from the town's six shops and built public drinking fountains for people to fill reusable bottles.