Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food in the air: then and now

I thought I'd round off the last of my travel food posts with a (longish) one on airline food, especially as in the last couple of months I've taken so many flights--but I won't be restricting it to just this trip, as I want to do a bit of a comparison. Over the years, since I was a baby in fact, I've been on more planes than I can count, in the wake first of my globe-trotting expatriate parents and then in my own restless forays around the world and it's interesting to see how things have changed. Most of what I'm about to say applies to economy class; I have been in business class a couple of blissful times when my brother used to work for one of the Middle Eastern airlines who were very generous with their family travel allowances, allowing siblings as well as parents and children of staff to obtain business class tickets at a tiny fraction of their usual cost, but otherwise have travelled in economy. The food in business class was of course much nicer, fresher, more varied and served in much better surroundings, crockery, etc than in economy, but in a sense, as I'll explain, it was only as good as what used to happen in the past for economy-class passengers, when we travelled as children on companies such as the now-defunct UTA, Union des Transports AĆ©riens, which used to do the long-haul flights from France.
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!


  1. You're right about the general blandness of airline food. I am limited in what I can have, due to my religion, but because of the awfulness of kosher airline food I generally go for vegetarian, which can be very good indeed. The regular menus make the meals sound wonderful, but what turns up on those trays bears no resemblance to what the menu said. Standout meal: breakfast on the Ansett flight from Melbourne to Perth(no more Ansett, alas!). I ordered vegetarian. While everyone ese was choking down greasy sausages and other fried food, I had a light, fluffy omelette wrapped around asparagus, with some grilled tomato and mushroom. My first memory of zabaglione: on an Alitalia flight in the middle f the night. I was trying to get some sleep and finally dozing off when the lights were turned on and the flight attendant came around with bowls of zabaglione!.

  2. Welcome home Sophie. What a fascinating tour you have given us. Airline food is god's punishment for having an overseas jaunt and must be endured stoically. Sandwiches seem a good escape from the reheated sludge, especially if there is a glass of cold white wine to hand. Perhaps the airlines could be encouraged to listen to you?

  3. I wish they would, Sheila! If simple, good food can be produced sometimes for air travellers then surely it could be done all the time! And Sue, that's interesting what you say re the vegetarian option--maybe I should try it! (though mind you the veg option I saw on a couple of flights weren't very inspiring either--overcooked vegs in bland sauce with rice..)But the Singapore Airlines flight on which we had the nice chicken and beef options also had some very good-smelling Indian vegetarian food.