The cabin crew will shortly be serving you with a hot meal. You're in luck

William Hartston tucks in to a feast of flying food while Simon Calder (below) joins a team of tasters at Stansted airport and explains how to
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are some things in life - such as parties, Ascot, getting drunk, Sushi, or motor-racing on television - that many people think they enjoy but, if forced to be brutally honest, would have to admit that at best they are deeply dissatisfying and at worst pointless. There is, however, one thing that most of us think we don't like, but enjoy tremendously, and that is airline food.

In 1992 Egon Ronay described those little flying food parcels as "pre- meditated gastronomic murder", suggesting that passengers should, instead of being force-fed in their seats, be offered a choice of fresh, cold dishes to buy before boarding.

He may not have known it, but that was how airline food began more than 75 years ago. For on 11 October 1919, the passengers on a London-Paris flight were offered pre-packed cold lunches for three shillings. It was the first time meals had been served on a scheduled flight. Nearly eight years later, again on a London-Paris flight operated by Imperial Airways, the first hot meal was served and airline food began to reach a level of sophistication that made passengers feel that they had a right to complain about it.

For the next 60 years or so, they were probably right to complain. For the emphasis was on uniformity and inoffensiveness rather than any desire to create dishes that were pleasurable to eat. A slice of egg in a salad portion is always exactly the same as your neighbour's: so that nobody would have grounds for complaint, the airline food suppliers invented the cylindrical egg - the eggs were separated, the yolks mixed together and poured into a long, slim cylindrical container and the whites into a surrounding container, and then they were both cooked together.

However attractive the menus may have looked, the food was uniformly unappetising. A typical 1975 lunch on a British Airways flight was advertised in mouthwatering fashion as "selected hors d'oeuvre, braised steaklets in red wine sauce, buttered French beans, celery hearts and croquette potatoes, followed by rum baba, cheese and cream crackers"; only the hors d'oeuvre appeared to have been selected by a masochist, the steaklets had been braised to death, the beans, celery and potatoes all tasted of cardboard and the rum baba, though small, seemed designed to kill any remaining appetite, for no one was ever known to eat one completely.

Then they gave you an identical meal on the homeward flight, too. It may not sound too different from today's fare: "smoked trout, roasted chicken with lemon and herb stuffing served with stir-fried vegetables and potatoes, fruit jelly, cheese", only the 1996 food actually tastes as advertised. And vegetarians, rather than having to bring their own provisions on board, now have the alternative of spinach and ricotta cheese tortellini with tomato and basil cream sauce.

In First Class, of course, the food has always been good, but it has recently started to cater more to passengers' demands (apparently, they're fed up with caviar on Concorde and now demand bangers and mash and black pudding) and become more adventurous - later this year, BA will introduce ostrich steaks for premium passengers.

There are undoubtedly great problems inherent in feeding people on aeroplanes. The food has to be something that may be cooked beforehand then successully re-heated. It must take into account the possible dietary requirements of a wide variety of different cultural and religious groups. And above all, it has to be something you can dispense to a couple of hundred people in a few minutes. A bit like hospital food, then.

With these constraints, it is perhaps unsurprising that blandness ruled for more than 60 years, yet by the time Egon Ronay made his complaint, standards were already improving. Over the last 10 years, airline food has undergone a complete overhaul. The take-it-or-leave-it dry chicken and exhausted vegetables have been replaced by a choice of dishes that are both more appetising and more nutritious. Yet there are still many no-go areas. Cabbage is out, because of the lingering odour; garlic is banned for similar reasons and baked beans, too. ("I've just flown in from the Windy City" is no excuse for in-flight flatulence.) Bivalves, offal, peanuts (except in little plastic packs), pork and squid are also generally avoided because many people find them offensive, disgusting or completely offputting. Strong flavours, however, are encouraged because cabin pressure inhibits the functioning of taste buds.

So they've told you what to do when the plane crashes into the sea, the plane has taken off, the "fasten seat belt" sign has been turned off and you no longer have to ensure that your seat is in an upright position and the tray in front of you secured. The cabin crew will shortly be passing down the aisles and serving a hot meal. Now spare a thought for what the food has been through. It will have been cooked 24 hours earlier, arranged on the plastic trays, then cooled in blast-chillers to prevent the multiplication of bacteria. Until the plane is ready, the trays are stored in insulated food carts. On board, cold dishes must be kept at a temperature below 5C while hot dishes must be reheated for at least two minutes at 70C.

And where did all that food come from? If you're flying from Heathrow, the meal was probably prepared at Catering Centre South, an area into which five football pitches could comfortably be fitted, which claims to be the largest kitchen in Europe. Each year they produce 11 million meals, with over 60 chefs among a staff close to 1,000.

And is British Airways the world's favourite airline, gastronomically speaking? Sadly not. It came third in a recent survey by Business Traveller magazine, with Lufthansa in first place. For that special treat, however, you might like to try the peanut-crusted chicken with roasted banana honey sauce on American Airlines - perhaps the only airline to have produced a recipe book of favourite in-flight dishes.

Just one final word of advice: lay off the prawns if you're of nervous disposition. Earlier this year, five patients were admitted to hospitals in Los Angeles with severe diarrhoea. One of them died. All five had been on the same flight from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles via Lima. Of the 189 other passengers whom investigators were able to trace, 100 were found to be infected with the cholera virus. And 87 per cent of those infected had chosen the seafood salad, which had been prepared in Lima, where cholera is endemic. Thank you for flying with us.

Circumnavigating the globe with barely more food than a boiled sweet and a packet of peanuts is relatively easy, particularly if you rely on American or Russian airlines for most of your travel.

Start from Gatwick with the new no-frills airline AB Shannon to the west of Ireland, where you connect to the Moscow-Miami flight.

For decades, most Aeroflot transatlantic flights have refuelled at Shannon, taking on kerosene and large quantities of duty-free whiskey. Meals are sometimes left out of the equation. The last such flight I took uploaded barely a sandwich for the onward leg to Gander in Newfoundland, because a proper dinner was waiting to be picked up at the Canadian gateway. Sadly, a snowstorm meant we landed at an airport several hundred miles from Gander. There was no hope of feeding an Aeroflot Jumbo-ski full of passengers. So we went hungry.

American carriers have cut back so much on food that it is entirely possible to cross from coast to coast on a diet of peanuts. A tangle of arcane rules are employed by airlines to determine if you are to be served a meal on a particular flight or not. It involves a complex calculation about the proportion of the journey that crosses specified "meal zones". Most of the time the answer is "no".

So you can reach Seattle without fear of food poisoning from inflight meals, because there won't be any.

On the US West Coast, Aeroflot picks up the catering baton once again; upon arrival in Vladivostock, you find yourself flying the next leg on Domodedovo Airlines, an Aeroflot splinter with an even keener streak of economy on the meal front. The haul across Siberia to Moscow is unlikely to be enlivened by too much dinner. Then off to Shannon, and back to Gatwick the way you came - hungry.

Gluttons who choose their carriers with care can truly feast their way around the world. The place to start is the British Airways lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4. Here you can munch your way through free crisps and sandwiches. (First Class passengers, meanwhile, are enjoying dinner at the gate before boarding; then they can go straight to sleep after take-off, though there is nothing to stop them having a second dinner).

Club World passengers get the usual on-board meal service, followed by unlimited top-ups. The airline encourages them to "raid the larder" - visit the galley to pick up chocolate and cakes at any time during the flight.

Transfer at Hong Kong to Cathay Pacific: whatever your class of travel, the airline specifies that extra sandwiches are available at any time, a promise I have yet to find wanting. So you lose a day but gain a few pounds crossing the International Date Line to the United States.

Make sure your US domestic flights are on Midwest Express, the Milwaukee- based airline that keeps winning awards for the excellence of its catering. One good reason is that it insists all passengers get a decent meal.

Bidding a bloated goodbye at Boston, you step aboard Icelandair for the trip home. This has two benefits. One is double helpings: you change planes in Reykjavik airport, and get a meal on both legs. The other is the unlimited free sampling of smoked salmon at the duty-free shop during your stopover.

Route yourself back to London via Glasgow, and you can benefit from the intense competition between British Airways and British Midland on flights to Heathrow. All passengers are given a hearty Club class meal, ending with just one more wafer-thin mint...You may never get off the ground again.

Seasoned travellers' tales

When we asked recently for examples of lengthy waits between scheduled take-off and meal service. Independent readers responded famously, with a preponderance of tales involving flights to or from the United States.

"In April 1988 I was booked from Quito (Ecuador) to Miami on the late, unlamented Eastern Airlines, scheduled for take off at 8am. Meal service finally arrived over 10 hours later.

"Between checking in at 6am and 2.30pm we were fed a diet of two dry sandwiches, a can of Sprite and a variety of lies about our TriStar's precise whereabouts. It landed at 2.35pm and took off 3.10pm for the half- hour flight to Guayaquil, where as our approach began we started to go round in circles.

The captain duly informed us that he could not get the flaps down on one side. After 30 minutes of dumping kerosene into various Ecuadorean rice fields we did a "hot" (fast) landing pursued by a couple of geriatric fire engines travelling at some 200mph less than we were.

Repairs were effected and we took off about 5.15pm. After 45 minutes I was given a packet of peanuts. I pointed out forcefully that after 12 hours in Eastern Airlines' tender care, with only two sandwiches, a can of Sprite, a load of lies and an emergency landing to keep me going, a large free Scotch would not go amiss - and what about a proper meal?

This was applauded by my neighbours and had two unexpected effects. First, the captain announced apologetically that whatever the delays and traumas had been on any flight, it was not Eastern Airlines' policy to serve "complimentary beverages". Second, my dinner - an excellent plate of prawn stew - was served 20 minutes before anyone else's.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their reluctance ever to serve free drinks, Eastern Airlines went bankrupt shortly afterwards." - Warwick Hillman, Middlesex.

"Take-off time 5pm, JFK to Heathrow. Delay due to fault, estimated time 20 minutes, reality 90 minutes. Meanwhile, storm approaching.

Once fault is remedied, delay due to slot congestion on runway, roughly two hours plus storm delay of 20 minutes. No food, fags or films - just fear. Take off 9pm, in the middle of a terrifying storm. For the first time ever, every passenger's eye was glued to the air hostesses' safety instructions as the plane shook, rattled and rolled its way off the runway. Following an extremely mild apology from the pilot, the stewardess recovered enough to attempt to feed the now appetiteless passengers two hours after take-off, ie at 11pm" - Tizzie Knowles, East Sussex.

"My own airline experience prompts me to suggest that all passengers should be advised to carry survival nourishment. On a recent Newark/Heathrow flight when there was severe turbulence all along the coast and dinner could not be served until we were well out over the Atlantic. And then, of course, breakfast followed almost immediately.

Of course, if one arrives at one's hub off an American domestic flight that succeeds in serving nothing, then one boards the next flight in a state of starvation. Furthermore, if one is travelling alone with even a minimum of cabin luggage, it is difficult to grab a bite at the airport.

I sometimes think the airlines could sell from the drinks trolley cans of liquid foods. Some people might even prefer it to average airline food" - Mrs E D Friedlander, London.

Flying tonight what six airlines will be serving today on the Heathrow-New York run

Air India

Selection of aperitifs, beers, wines, cocktails, spirits and liqueurs

Mixed salad with dressing

Supreme of Chicken Provencal

(Breast of chicken in garlic flavoured tomato sauce)

served with small roast potatoes and buttered vegetables

or

Mutton Korma Asafjahi

(Succulent morsels of mutton in rich gravy with exotic spices)

Pea Pulao

(Basmati rice pulao cooked with green peas)

Spiced Vegetables

Yoghurt Pickle

Kesari Phimi with Pistachio

Tea or Coffee

British Airways

Smoked Trout

Roasted chicken with lemon and herb stuffing

severed with stir-fried vegetables and potatoes

or

Spinach and ricotta cheese tortellini

with tomato and basil cream sauce

Fruit jelly

Cheese

Coffee and tea

Continental Airlines

Salad

cucumbers, radish, cherry tomatoes, lettuce

Lamb

with parsley potatoes, broccoli and carrots

or

Chicken breast

in a barbecue sauce

with garden peas, Parisienne carrots and mashed potatoes

Dotted pear surprise

United Airlines

Green Garden Salad

With shrimp, Cucumber and Tomato,

offered with Dressing of the day

Chicken Fillet

Complemented by Honey Mustard Sauce,

presented with herbed Noodles

and sliced Carrots

or

Fillet of Cod

Enhanced by a White Wine Sauce

flavoured with Red Peppers

served with Green Beans, Carrots

and herbed Rice Pilaff

Carrot Cake

Starbucks freshly brewed Coffee

Virgin Atlantic

Mixed leaf salad

served with balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Fillet of poached salmon

with Julienne of courgettes

and onion in a white wine sauce

served with broccoli, carrots and new potatoes

or

Beef and mushroom pie

with baton carrots and buttered peas

Vanilla and toffee bavarois

or

Fresh ice-cream

Cheese & biscuits

Chocolates

Tea & coffee

American Airlines

Salad

Mixed seasonal greens

Fillet Mignon

in a mushroom sauce served with sugar snap peas and potatoe wedges seasoned with rosemary and thyme.

or

Marinated Chicken Breast

with vegetables and pesto pasta

or

Pizzeria Uno Chicago

four cheeses pizza

Chocolate Brownie

with maple syrup sauce and a strawberry decoration

Tea and coffee

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