Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Food in the air: then and now
In those days, when it took nearly two days to get from Australia to France, with multiple layovers at various places in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the airlines generally only gave out drinks and light refreshments on board; the main meals were served at the airports, in proper restaurants with proper menus. The company gave you vouchers of a particular value to spend in any restaurant in the airport; and when as in our case the party consisted of several hungry children plus their exhausted parents, it can't have come cheaply! But the result was we ate good food, freshly-cooked and appetising, in relaxed surroundings where you didn't have to make like a robot or a battery cage hen in order to try and manipulate your cutlery without disturbing your all-too-close-next-seat neighbour, just as these days you can be so muchj more comfortable in business class. But of course it all took a good deal of time as well as costing a good deal of money and it was only possible for airlines to do this while not that many people travelled by air. Once many more people took to the skies, and it became imperative to transport as many people as possible in the shortest time possible in as economical a way as possible, then out of the porthole went the multiple layovers(no regrets there, it was tiresome to keep getting on and off!) and so did the gourmet meals in airports(regrets,I've had a few!). For us poor saps in economy class it became a matter of ingesting whatever food it was the airline we were travelling on was proposing, with our only choice being limited to a couple of alternatives which often, surprisingly(not) turned out to taste pretty much like each other.
Now I may have travelled a lot on planes but that doesn't mean I like it. It's a regrettable necessity for us here in Australia if we want to go to any other country at all. But it's not, shall we say, my favourite way to spend an hour or two, still less twenty-two. Despite all the flying, I'm a nervous flyer, though I never used to be as a child, and I can't say that airline food exactly takes my mind off the absurdity of being in an aluminium tube with a whole lot of strangers at high altitude above the earth. But I still do notice it in a desultory kind of way, and what I've mostly noticed over many years of flying is that economy-class food isn't usually actually bad, it's just mediocre. Forgettable. Boring. Unmemorable. Bland. Dull. And every other synonym of that sort you can think of. The meals blend into each other in a beige sort of way, leaving nothing behind but a vague feeling of dissatisfaction but not outright dismay. It doesn't seem to matter what airline it is you're flying on, what the menu promises, or what port you've taken off from, mostly that's the experience of economy-class food.
But there are some meals that do stand out in my memory, one for its true awfulness, and three for their surprising tastiness, and perhaps not surprisingly those are from four recent trips I've taken.
First on the dishonour roll, the one that still stands out for me as the perfect exemplar of sheer unimaginative and tasteless quality was a meal we had on a British Airways plane between Sydney and Singapore in 2010. Offered for supper(as the only major meal on this not insignificantly-long leg)it purported to be a macaroni bake and consisted of dried out pasta with a smidgin of bland sauce. And that was it, apart from a limp salad and a piece of dry cake. Gah! The airline certainly did themselves or the reputation of British food no favours, serving such terrible muck!
And the honour roll? Well, this time, on the Singapore to Sydney leg just a few days ago, Singapore Airlines served up a lovely dinner, with a choice of two excellent main courses--Hainanese chicken and rice--which I took and which tasted just as it should, succulent and tasty; and a tender beef stew with vegetables, which David took and pronounced excellent. The food on Singapore Airlines, which we took for the long-haul flights, hadn't been uniformly good up till then though; it had been ok on the other legs(Sydney-Singapore; Singapore-Moscow; London-Singapore)but not great, just standard mediocre, so I don't know by what stroke of luck we managed to get a great batch the other day. (That does often seem to be the case with airline food--the ones that stand out are truly randomly distributed!) Another excellent stand-out on our trip was amazingly(and contrary to the urban legends)on the Russian airline Aeroflot which we took from Moscow to Warsaw in September this year, where they served a really nice fresh lunch of smoked fish and meat, delicious black bread, and definitely the best cake I've ever eaten on an aeroplane: a beautiful blackcurrant mousse cake with a crumbly base, quite as good as any you'd buy in any excellent Moscow patisserie(which serve lovely cakes.) And the last stand out was on an Air France flight between Singapore and Paris in 2010(the leg straight after that awful BA culinary experience so maybe that's why it stands out). It was a late-night flight and they didn't serve any major meals but in the galley you could go and help yourself to a variety of terrific sandwiches, salads and drinks. I don't usually snack even when I'm wide awake at 1 in the morning; but I made an exception this time and tried out two or three of the sandwiches, which were all delicious. It was great too having the possibility of just choosing what you felt like without buzzing/bugging anyone to bring it to you!
I'd be interested to know what readers' thoughts are on airline food, and what your faves/hates have been on your own long-distance trips, so please feel free to comment--and if you're one of those lucky persons who regularly wings it on business, please don't hesitate to make the rest of us jealous with your accounts of gourmet delights!