Matters of taste

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I enjoy airline meals
August 24, 2011

For most people, the opportunity to eat badly while balanced improbably in a large cigar tube in the sky is not something to anticipate with pleasure. Surely no one who has ever flown economy, strapped into the adult equivalent of a high-chair with a fold-down tray the size of a cat flap, still thinks flying is glamorous. And who even bothers to peel back the foil on their indeterminate chicken dish, let alone look forward to it?

Erm, that would be me.

On the ground I call myself a foodie, but put me in the brace position with my knees around my ears and I await the trundle of the trolley with touchingly optimistic impatience and a complete suspension of judgment. I devour the clammy bread roll with its limp Larry Grayson handshake as though it were a slice of Poilâne slathered with Deux-Sèvres and knock back the mini bottle of Chateau Dettol as eagerly as I do a vodka martini at the Duke’s Hotel—though without my lips going numb which, in the air, would probably be an advantage.

So what causes this lapse of taste? Well, it may be scientific. At high altitudes, food just doesn’t have any taste. The humidity on a plane is only marginally higher than in the Sahara; drying out our noses and impairing our ability to smell, one of the most important elements in stimulating appetite. One solution, recently proposed by Heston Blumenthal in his quest to improve BA’s inflight catering, was to use a nasal douche—words that just roll off the tongue, if not the palate. It didn’t catch on.

So what’s the problem? Well, we partly eat with our eyes—and what they’re presented with is gloop covered with yellow sauce served with dried-out rice. But it’s not just the aesthetics, or lack of them, that impairs our enjoyment of the mile-high TV dinner. While sour and bitter don’t change much (though heat can disguise bitterness, which means the furnace temperatures of aeroplane ovens is a blessing), the perception of salty and sweet are both experienced differently under cabin pressure. Normally seasoned food appears bland—even chocolate is lacklustre. Food at altitude has to be spicier to have impact, surely accounting for the popularity of curry on airline menus. The one desirable taste that research shows remains consistent is umami—the so called “fifth” taste which roughly translates from Japanese as “pleasant savouriness.” This is what gives soy sauce its depth of flavour, and naturally occurs in everything from shitake mushrooms to parmesan cheese.

I applaud the efforts that airlines put into their meals, but the truth is I simply don’t care. Captive in coach, I eat like a veal calf and graze on anything put in front of me. It’s not about the food being good, it’s about it being there on its tiny tray like a doll’s tea-set in all its bento-sized compartments; stodgy pasta, grey meat, rubber potatoes, school-dinner cottage pie—bring it on. I’m a Scot. We think mince is a major food group and baked beans are green vegetables. I may have five different kinds of special reserve olive oil in my cupboard, but stick me in a confined space and I revert to type. For me, being on a plane is like being back in the nursery, where a benign parent-figure proffers morsels of soft, overly pureed invalid food to tempt my appetite.

However, it’s when I turn left on long-haul that I really get hungry. Crossing the pond in Club, the first thing I do after I’ve read the safety instructions and assessed the chances of surviving a sea landing by imperceptibly raising my seat forward to the upright position, is to introduce myself to the person sitting next to me. If I’m going to plummet to my death with someone, I feel it’s only polite to know their name before I clutch their hand in terror.

Social niceties dispensed with, the next thing I do is survey the menu. Sprawled in the great bath chair in the sky, tucked up in a blanket as though recovering from a chill, I sip champagne instead of Lucozade and munch from a bowl of nuts, warmed to—ineffectually—banish the hint of staleness.

The only problem with Club class is not the food, but the fact that one’s companion is often not flying for pleasure but for business. He’s afflicted with travel fatigue and couldn’t care less about the fizz—he wants Evian, choosing hydration over alcohol-fuelled oblivion, and only wants to slap on his shades and sleep. This leaves me in a quandary, because I really do want more Moët—champagne survives the altitude taste test better than most still wines, whose acidity and tannins can seem more pronounced in the air—something obvious to anyone snapping off a screwtop of Cabernet Sauvignon back in steerage.

Singapore Air tastes all their wines in an in-flight simulator to try and replicate flying conditions, but once I’ve fastened my seatbelt, I don’t give a fig and prosciutto salad about the quality. I’m more worried that I’m attacking the menu like I’m on an all inclusive Caribbean holiday at Sandals while my neighbour is on a yoga retrain and declining everything with disdain. My ideal cabin mate is a fat man who doesn’t make me feel like a lush if I have an after dinner brandy but orders his own. Then, when we cuddle up on each other’s shoulder later— if we both snore, we’ll be the only ones who don’t know it. That’s where airlines should really direct their research—earplugs.