Baaaddad on Badoit

ASKED WHAT MINERAL WATER I PREFERRED at dinner in the Chambres d’Hôtes Jacotte et Elia, near Saint-Galmier, some eight miles north of St. Étienne in the department of the Loire, I said Badoit, if possible. Oh dear!, said my hostess; she was very sorry, but there had been too long a queue when she had gone to fetch some this morning, so there was only Vitel or Volvic at the moment; she would try again tomorrow.

The last few days had been very hot; all the same, I was surprised to hear that already there was so acute a shortage of bottled water in the shops. Only later did I discover that the queue had been not at the supermarket, but at the kiosk on the green below the old town of Saint-Galmier, where  residents have the privilege of drawing 20 litres of water per household, per day, free of charge, from the Badoit springs.

 Whether it is a reflection of assiduous promotional campaigns, or the empirical judgements of opinion-forming consumers, or something of both, there is a certain snobbery attached to Badoit. My own first acquaintance with it was at luncheon with the late Madame Bollinger, then head of one of the leading and most esteemed “houses” in Champagne. No other sparkling mineral water was ever served at her table. Hard to believe that until 1954 Badoit was sold only in  pharmacies, but explicable by the fact that, like Nestlé’s Perrier, its popularity had begun with the science of medical hydrology, itself a late 19th century development. The Romans are said to have bathed in it, and may have drunk it with beneficial consequences, but it was not until 1837 that a farmer, August Saturnin Badoit, in defiance of the theory that he was thereby diminishing its medicinal properties, began bottling it. Today it is sometimes claimed to be the best-selling naturally sparkling mineral water in the world.

Its journey from origins to bottle is a long one. Draining from the Massif Central and the Lyonnais Mountains to the north, percolating through granite to channels beneath the Forez plain, rain water is enriched by minerals and enlivened by naturally occurring carbon dioxide before being pumped from some 150 metres down in the same granite on which Saint-Galmier is built.

Other than dipping a bucket in a subterranean reservoir or stream, it would be hard to come closer to a specific source than the kiosk on the green, adjacent to the premises where more than 200 people work in conditions suggestive of a well-ordered medical institution. White coats and head coverings, protective glass barriers: a team of assorted analysts ceaselessly monitoring mineral content (calcium 190 mg per litre; sodium 150; magnesium 85; potassium………….) and microbiological purity. Tours of the installation are far from easy to arrange.

There is no great fuss about collecting the precious stuff at the kiosk. Needing only enough for the picnic that I hope to have in the course of a walk later in the day, ignorant of the need for a printed permit, I have come equipped with two empty, half litre bottles of diet coke and am embarrassed by a courteous request for proof of citizenship. When I apologise and explain my situation the attendant says that’s perfectly all right: an exception can be made for bona fide visitors. He hopes the weather stays fine and that I have a nice walk.

About half past four in the afternoon, the mother and father of a thunderstorm breaks over the hills behind Saint-Galmier and I am obliged to take refuge in a mercifully nearby cow shed. Watching the rain pouring from a broken gutter, I wonder how long it will be before it resurfaces as “The champagne of all mineral waters”. Meanwhile, I hope it stops very soon.


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