Milan Kundera says that there is a secret link between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetfulness. For our part, if we are able to choose we opt for slowness, and memory with it. As a stance in the face of events, as a working method and also as raw material, because it is precisely the time that the ingredient intervenes to add value to our drink that takes it to another level of finesse and complexity during several months of ageing. Therefore, it makes sense that when the moment arrived to select the water for our Ama pét-nat tea we should choose one that is particularly slow and memorious.
The chalky massif of Izarraitz rises high in the heart of Gipuzkoa above the towns of Azpeitia, Azkoitia and Zestoa. It reaches its maximum height in the grey and bare peak of Mount Erlo (1,026 metres above sea level), from where there is a spectacular view of the Urola valley and beyond towards the coast of Gipuzkoa, Les Landes, the area around Durango and the Pyrenees, depending on how clear the visibility is and where people direct their gaze. In 1997 the average accumulated precipitation in the area was 904.5 litres per square metre, and the day it rained most was 16th July, with 55 litres per square metre. After settling on the summit, many of those drops sank into the rock and started a long underground journey through clay, argillite, loam and sand; these rocks subtly changed their personality, enriching and mineralising the water along the way until it reached a well located 700 metres underground where the temperature, which rose during the journey, reached 29°C. This spot marks the exact point at which a geological event occurs that returns all this accumulated water to the surface suddenly and violently: the rock strata of black flysch that have their origins in the coast of Gipuzkoa and their white ‘rival’ in the opposite direction from the massif. The clash of the two rock formations exerts so much pressure on the water that it drives it upwards until it flows out in the spring in Alzola, a neighbourhood of Elgoibar. At that very moment, twenty-five years later, people called ‘guardians’ wait for it to gush out of the rock with their bottles ready.
The spring was discovered by accident in 1776, when some children swimming in the river in midwinter realised that the water was warmer in a particular part of it. This discovery by the boys attracted the interest of the medical authorities of the time, with the prospect of a source of thermal water there. Once the initial suspicions were confirmed, and it was seen that the water was “markedly lithinic and highly radioactive” and had a “strong digestive, calming, diuretic and eliminatory effect”, a quarter of a century later −in 1801− the first bathhouse in Europe with a doctor present opened its doors to the public. A few decades later, in 1843, the water was declared ‘of public utility’. In an area of intense trade, in which the river served as a means of transport of goods to the nearby port of Deba, news of these medicinal properties spread far and wide and it soon started to attract both national and foreign clients who ended up constituting a motley crew of nobles, soldiers, industrialists, writers and politicians who came to recover their health in the baths in an elegant manner.
The flow of guests gradually acted as a stimulus to the prosperity of the neighbourhood. Hotels, hostels and cafeterias started to open to satisfy the needs of the new visitors, and in the early 20th century the category of the bathhouse was raised to make it a ‘Gran Hotel’. New rooms, dining rooms and other leisure facilities were introduced to match the expectations of such a select clientele. The establishment even welcomed more than 2,000 visitors during the season it remained open, from June to October. For those who could not afford to stay in the hotel, it was also possible to gain access to the diuretic benefits of the water from the spring; bottled, it was sold in pharmacies under prescription and wrapped in a label-leaflet crowned by two naked angels holding the medals the water had won in international exhibitions. It spoke of its “unrivalled properties for persons suffering renal colic”, making it “essential in the treatment of rheumatism and gout”. The recommended dose was “three 200-gram glasses” at 20-minute intervals on an empty stomach.
The gradual decline of the Gran Hotel, which survived the most difficult years of the 20th century and even served as a blood hospital during the Civil War, culminated with its closure in 1976, just two centuries after the spring was first discovered. The building still stands today, almost in its original form and converted into a kind of museum of its own decadence. The modern bottling plant is now installed inside, and it is still possible to visit rooms that hint at the splendour of another age. Some bathtubs still survive, although they are now covered with rust, as are some of the ceilings and walls.
The water, however, has managed to stay intact in its underground refuge, far removed from the vicissitudes occurring outside. Its mineral content has not changed at all since the first time it was measured two hundred years ago, and its balance appears in a graph that shows its composition. Right from the start, when we were still looking for the water that would serve as a basis for our experiments, this graph seemed strangely attractive to us. The building was able to bear the terrible floods of December 2021, when three weeks of incessant rain caused the river to overflow and even reach the second floor of the building, dragging canisters, pallets and heavy machinery along with it. Once the river subsided and it was possible to gain access to the spring, the analyses showed that the water had retained its properties despite the devastation that had taken place around it. Its sweet taste, characteristic smoothness and mineralisation were still the same as the first time a client of the bathhouse tried it a couple of centuries earlier. The same features that give our water its texture, character and identity make it the ideal element to enhance the flavour of our teas and herbs. Nowadays, as in the past, its “guardians” simply collect it and send it to the bottles that, after labelling, will travel all over the country without any kind of treatment or modification being applied. Just in case, they do not forget the small image of the Virgin Mary, a lookout and witness of the river’s flow on one of its banks opposite the old building; if the water reaches her neck, we would have to start worrying again.
Loaded with all these stories and the wealth that the water has taken from the mountain, drop by drop, during its long, hidden journey, the water reaches us twenty-five years later after the torrential rains of 1997, when we did not even imagine that one day we would be waiting for it on the other side, when we were still far from suspecting that we would end up playing with tea leaves, yeast and bacteria sometime in the future. In a sense, this slowness fits in well with our aim of slowing down the speed of a drink like kombucha, as it seems to urge us to consume it quickly, directly and almost always standing up, in the plastic bottle it usually comes in. We wanted to slow the process down, giving it time to age and reveal its best qualities and dressing it in an elegant bottle, placing it on a table and serving it in a glass made of the finest crystal, opening up other possibilities and proposing other rhythms.
Slowness, stories, but also territory, identity. In Japan they say that water is the terroir of sake. The rice used to make this drink can come from any part of the country, but the kuras (distilleries) were (and still are) usually located near springs, from where they extract the water that would become its main ingredient and, therefore, an expression of that territory. Indeed, the origin and quality of the water is what marks the differences between sakes, in the same way that the water we choose is essential to define the personality of our drink: for its mineralization, which facilitates the interaction between nutrients and yeasts and bacteria to weave their magic and foster fermentation −which would be impossible with softer water – and proximity, because it comes from the depths of our land, which also gives it its own character. We also believe in a terroir of water consisting of an environment, a geology, a climate, a culture and ways of doing things that only happen in this place and time and have been gradually moulded over the centuries. The plants we use to create our drinks express the regionality of the places they come from: sencha tea from Shizuoka, in Japan, lemongrass from Sri Lanka, green tea from Malawi, milk oolong from Taiwan… grown by people who, despite the great distances and cultural differences, share the same vision vis-à-vis sustainability, ecological agriculture and the search for taste. However, it is water, the element that makes up 95% of our pét-nat tea, that – as happens with the kuras in Japan – anchors us in our own land, linking us through it to the foothills of the massif of Izarraitz, where we work and live with that mountainous, marine and karstic landscape in which small farmers, stockbreeders and fisherfolk lay the basis for the culinary identity of the entire country.
We find beauty in what time does to things, and also things that we have to wait for. Like Kundera, we believe in the need for a slow time to let memories take root, knowledge become embedded, identities constructed, flavours and textures evolve, and the alchemy of fermentation that transforms ingredients. In twenty-five years’ time the rain falling on Elgoibar now will rise the surface of the ground in just a few seconds so that someone can taste the liquid memory of a long and winding journey through in the insides of the mountain. After all, twenty-five years is nothing, isn’t it?
By Raul Nagore