SKY-HIGH HAUTE CUISINE

FOOD & DRINK A decent meal at 30,000ft is no longer pie in the sky. BA's new menu is vastly improved, and unashamedly British. Michael Bateman reports
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AIRLINE food isn't a subject to excite the imagination of the gourmet. On the contrary, these cellophane-wrapped, Tom Thumb meals- on- trays tend to figure in discussions about the worst meals ever eaten, not the best.

The logistics of catering at 30,000ft are only the first of many obstacles in the path of the menu planners. With an international clientele, the most significant feature seems to be to avoid causing offence. Nobody is hugely upset by airline food, nor is anyone mightily pleased.

American and British airlines have probably been the most cautious in this respect - and given world opinion on British cooking, our reserve has been understandable. But hasn't our cooking come on a bit in the last decade? British Airways apparently thinks so, for in a dizzy spirit of adventure it is launching British food on all classes and all routes.

But wait a minute. What exactly is British food? Delia Smith leads us down the path of pasta and pesto (we out-eat even the Italians in the pasta league), while our supermarket baskets are crammed with soy, oyster and chilli sauces, ginger and garlic, pak choi, nam pla, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (out of the frying pan, into the wok?). So why now, when the very concept of British food is an anachronism, does British Airways decide to go with it?

When Concorde celebrated its twentieth birthday a fortnight ago, customers were treated to a menu devoted to the supposed delights of the British table - smoked Surrey chicken, Northumberland quail, winter vegetable and barley pie, fillet of Angus beef (with olde English pickled walnut sauce), and roast Scottish salmon (with herb butter sauce).

Whether you're one of the select few flying first-class on Concorde to New York, or one of the other 30,000 who fly with BA each day, you will be invited to eat British. It may be from a cheeseboard, drawn from winners of the recent British Cheese Awards: Somerset cheddar, Devon and Shropshire Blues, Yorkshire Coverdale, Welsh Pencarreg, various goat's cheeses. You might breakfast on black pudding, real pork sausages, or smoked haddie', or tuck into an English cream tea with choice country shortbreads and gingerbreads. "It's not that we haven't used British produce before," says Sheena Lanagan, BA's food buyer, "but we've never made them a special feature. It's in the British character to be self-deprecating, but many of our foodstuffs are the best in the world, such as Angus beef and Scottish salmon."

But why promote British food after all this time? The initiative, it emerges, was prompted by Nicholas Soames, who was food minister for a brief but splendid spell. Not the self-deprecating sort, he suggested that if our national carrier could be persuaded to fly the food flag, it would help Britain beef up its food exports.

So in due course Food from Britain, the government agency dedicated to promoting British food, circulated its members and they sent their products to the BA chefs. FFB's marketing manager, Fiona Gately, submitted a list of 110 companies: smokers of ham and fish; makers of jams and jellies, relishes and mustards; purveyors of water, fruit juice, cider, beer, tea, coffee; bakers of biscuits, cakes, pastries and breads; makers of unusual sausages, and cheeses.

BA ruled out some products on practical grounds, but agreed to sample foods from 50 British companies in a series of mammoth tastings, including a day each devoted to cheese and sausages. Not all went well. Many were the sausages called, but few chosen. "We thought we'd die," admits Sheena Lanagan. "Some had very peculiar flavourings." BA's development chef, "Tubby" Grey, winces at the memory of a Toulouse-style sausage. "There was so much garlic, my wife wouldn't talk to me for a week."

The cheeses, though, were superb, and fitted in nicely with the constraints of in-flight catering which make it virtually a bonsai art form. The chefs work in miniature, shaping everything into tiny boxes. "It's like preparing a dolly's tea party," explains Tubby Grey.

BA's catering department occupies a six-acre site at Heathrow's Terminal 4 (think of six football pitches), a space required to accommodate not only the cooking of airline meals, but storage, chilling and the logistical apparatus needed to get 30,000 meals a day into the skies.

Increasing demands are made on airline caterers, but what about the egos of chefs? How many would be proud to prepare food which will be served, reheated, 24 hours later? Yet BA still manages to attract top chefs as advisors, such as Gary Rhodes (the spiky-haired punk of modern British food) and the transatlantically-minded Sally Clarke, who brought California cuisuine to British restaurant tables.

"Customer choice is suddenly the motto of the airlines," says Sheena Lanagan. That's why BA now produces 2,000 specialised meals each day: low-fat, no-cholesterol, vegetarian, vegan, even Jain (vegetarians who can't bear to take the lives of root vegetables), as well as kosher, Indian and Japanese. (The Japanese don't complain, apparently; they just don't fly with the airline again. BA once tried to flatter customers on its Tokyo route by introducing an exclusive set of white plates. What did the Japanese think? "In Japan," they said, "you'd only eat off plates like this in mental institutions.")

A big constraint for caterers - which may explain why airline meals are often described as bland - is that most people's taste buds function at two-thirds of their ground-level efficiency. To compensate for loss of flavour, visual appeal is essential. "You also have to make it very clear what things are," says Sheena Lanagan. "A stew isn't very appealing. Our Swedish rep describes a stew as 'meat in darkness'."

What works, and what doesn't, is mystifying. First-class customers on Concorde, poor things, are so sick of caviare, foie gras and lobster that they are suckers for bangers and mash - and black pudding. "Black pudding has been walking off the plates," says Tubby Grey, "and bangers and mash is a luxury they don't usually get. If you put it on the menu in economy class, though, you'd have a riot on your hands."

Food From Britain is over-the-moon that BA has taken its members on-board. Even at this early stage, inquiries are flooding in about the sources of these little shortbreads and lovely blue cheeses. It's a great marketing tool for Food from Britain officials abroad, who are enjoying these rare plaudits. The campaign's representative in America, Tony Matthews, OBE, confesses: "It's been very difficult to persuade Americans that our food isn't dreadful."

Thanks to his efforts, many British products now feature in the quality US stores. You'll find teas from Twinings, Fortnum and Mason, and Taylor's of Harrogate; Carr's water biscuits, Fort's Bath Olivers, Walker's shortbreads; Keiller's marmalades; Callard and Bowser sweets; Altoida extra strong peppermints.

One selling point is that British foods have more flavour than American ones, he says. "They especially like our beers and our cheeses. Beers such as Bass Red Label, Fullers of Chiswick, Young's Ram Rod and Theakston's sell well in America."

Ted Matern, food buyer at Dean and Deluca, the smartest food shop in New York, is a particular fan of British cheeses; he sells Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, Appleby Cheshire, Shropshire Blue and Quicke's Somerset cheddar in huge truckles weighing 14lb and 28lb.

The other side of the British coin in New York, which Tony Matthews shows off with a mixture of pride and amusement, is a village grocer called Myers of Kendal. The bell on the door tinkles as you push it open, as if you are entering a time warp. Here are shelves lined with British foodstuffs evoking the 1950s: Bisto, Oxo, Bovril, Marmite, mustard piccalilli, HP sauce, Branston pickle, Birds custard, Heinz baked beans. The blackboard announces what's on sale under the glass counter: pork pie, steak and kidney pie, Cumberland sausages, Scotch eggs. To this corner of Greenwich Village, which is forever England, expatriates come to settle their sense of homesickness.

In his promotions, talks and magazine interviews, Tony Matthews offers Americans a vision of a historic Britain when all was right with the world - not just pre-rationing and pre-war, but pre-Oliver Cromwell. "We had the best food in Europe until the Puritans came along. I take a few liberties with history. They like to hear all about hunt breakfasts and cream teas."

There's no harm in spreading the good word, but a niggling thought occurs. Why are we so backward-looking? As the TV series Pride and Prejudice has shown, our best export - food included - is nostalgia. Tony Matthews wouldn't disagree. Nor, apparently, does British Airways.

VEGETABLE AND BARLEY PIE

Veggie pie in the sky, British Airways-style. It reheats well, so you can make it the day before.

Serves 4

500ml/17fl oz bechamel sauce (made with 40g/112oz butter, 40g/112oz flour and 500ml/17fl oz milk)

100g/312oz pearl barley, cooked weight (50g/scant 2oz uncooked)

40g/112oz each of diced carrot, diced celeriac, sliced celery moons, sliced leeks, sliced courgette (in quarters), and sliced mushroom

40g/112oz cheddar, grated

50g/2oz dried porcini, optional

1 tablespoon chopped parsley seasoning to taste

For the choux pastry crust:

300ml/12 pint water

50g/2oz flour

25g/1oz butter

2 large eggs

seasoning

white of 1 leek, finely chopped

1 small potato weighing 100g/4oz, finely diced

1 tablespoon breadcrumbs.

Cook the pearl barley in boiling water in a covered pan for one hour, or until soft. Make a bechamel sauce by melting the butter in a small saucepan, stirring in the flour and gradually adding the milk, stirring to prevent lumps forming. Cook gently for 10 minutes to eliminate the taste of the flour.

Strain the dried mushrooms, and quickly saute (fry) in butter. In a pan of boiling water, parboil the carrots and the celeriac. Drain. Add to the bechamel sauce, together with all the other ingredients (except the dried mushrooms and the parsley, which are added at the end) and simmer until vegetables are tender.

Fill a pie dish with the mixture, adding the dried mushrooms, parsley and seasoning.

To make the choux pastry crust: boil the water and the butter together. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Season to taste.

Saute the sliced leeks and diced potatoes in butter, until cooked. Stir into the pastry mixture. With a palette knife, spread the mixture to a depth of 12cm/14in on to a buttered baking sheet. Dot with breadcrumbs. Bake in a hot oven (400F/200C/Gas 6) for 20 minutes, until browned on top. Lower the heat. Place the crust on top of the dish of vegetables, and serve when warmed through. This pie can be made a day in advance and reheated before serving. !

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