YOU WOULDN'T want to drink it. Yet despite smelling more like a Scottish beach than a gourmet treat, seawater is set to become the latest must-have ingredient in kitchens across the country.
• Entrepreneur Andy Inglis makes a splash with bottles of Acquamara seawater, which is sourced from the Outer Hebridean island of Berneray. Photograph: Jane Barlow
Acquamara, made from purified seawater from the Outer Hebrides, will be sold in three- litre containers priced at 4.95 and claims to enhance the flavour of foodstuffs from shellfish to soups. It is believed to be the first bottled seawater in the world that has been aimed at the culinary market.
Its creator, Andy Inglis, a former UN official who now lives in Dunbar, East Lothian, will officially launch the product today at the Taste of Edinburgh Festival. He admits some diners may baulk at paying almost a fiver for something that can be found naturally.
"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." he said.
Acquamara comes from the waters around the tiny Hebridean island of Berneray, where it is extracted from the sea and passed through a filter which cleans it of dirt, sand and rust, and any other containing particles. It is then tanked to a bottling facility near Dunbar. Certified as safe drinking water under EC drinking water standards, it will be sold in containers similar to wine boxes.
Despite the simplicity of the product, Acquamara has been garnering rave reviews from chefs. "The taste is amazing. What it does to food is remarkable," said Roy Brett, head chef and proprietor at Edinburgh seafood restaurant Ondine, who has been experimenting with Acquamara in a number of seafood recipes.
"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."
Inglis, 49, who works part-time with the Department for International Development, first came up with the idea of cooking with seawater while helping his daughter on a school project. He uncovered some ancient recipes that suggested using seawater and started experimenting with it.
"We live by the sea, so I tried cooking a few things with seawater 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."
The name Acquamara comes from the Italian for water, acqua, and the Gaelic for sea, mara. It was inspired by Inglis's days working for the UN in Rome, as well as by the source of the water in the Gaelic-speaking Outer Hebrides.
Cooking with seawater was once a popular way to cook shellfish, with a number of Scottish traditional sailors' recipes recommending seawater rather than freshwater as a way of adding flavour. Brett, who says it can also be used as a substitute to a stock cube, also used to cook with seawater regularly when he worked with seafood chef Rick Stein.
"Many years ago, before the regulations changed, we used to use seawater in his seafood restaurant in Padstow all the time," Brett said. "I really became aware of what it could do to enhance flavours and how tasty it is. Seawater really is a very versatile thing to be able to use and Rick was a huge fan of it."
Cooking with seawater has undergone something of a resurgence in recent times. Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that was named last month as the No 1 restaurant in the world, offers langoustine cooked in seawater as one of its starters, and Jamie Oliver is also thought to be a fan.
Michelin-starred Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin is also keen on cooking with seawater, and has tried Acquamara. "We have an appreciation of the best ingredients available from Scotland's outstanding natural larder, and seafood features strongly on our menus," he said.
"We have such an array of the highest quality seafood and shellfish in Scotland, and what could be fresher than storing and cooking with natural seawater from our Scottish shores."
Inglis also says that Acquamara could have unexpected health benefits. "It's a way of reducing your salt intake. You can put it in a spray and add it to a salad and get your salt flavour without having to add great mines of salt. You can add it to soup or even vegetables before your roast them."
There are currently no natural Scottish sea salt products on the market, with most of the country's salt coming from places like Anglesey. And Inglis says that he hopes the product will find a home both in professional chef's kitchens as well as in the home.
"I think 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."
However, he admitted: "I see it as being for special occasions like a dinner party rather than as an everyday thing."
Not every chef is convinced of its benefits, however. John Quigley, proprietor at Glasgow's Red Onion Bistro and former personal chef to Bryan Adams, said: "I wouldn't pay for it. Most chefs who cook with seawater just let the natural stuff come to a boil, and if they can't get hold of seawater they'll season the water with salt and edible seaweed instead. It's a good idea, but I won't be investing in it."