Pickles and poetry: de Botton investigates inflight catering

There can be few websites more peculiar than airlinemeals.net. It's a site that is sure to be of interest to future anthropologists and should already now be of interest to poets – because it is entirely dedicated to photographs of airline meals, which have been uploaded by passengers for no particular reason besides the sheer enjoyment of looking at other people's food on trays in planes around the world.

And what fun it is! You can compare the cutlery on Swiss and Lufthansa, gawp at what you'd get in ANA economy, admire the fluted glasses on TAP First Class, and commiserate with anyone in Business on Delta having to endure three pizzas between LAX and Sydney.

Naturally airline food is dismal when we compare it to what we'd get on the ground but this is to miss the point. The thrill of airline food lies in the interaction between the meal and the odd place in which one is eating it. Food that, if eaten in a kitchen, would have been banal or offensive, acquires a new taste in the presence of the clouds. With the in-flight tray, we make ourselves at home in an unhomely place: we appropriate the extraterrestrial skyscape with the help of a chilled bread roll and a plastic tray of potato salad.

In the airline industry, there is generally a wrongheaded imbalance between the lavish attention paid to distracting and entertaining travellers and the scant time spent educating them about the labour involved in their journeys. Clearly no one in airline catering appears to appreciate how much more interesting it is to observe an airline meal's being prepared than to actually eat such a meal.

Hence my recent delight at finally being allowed to realise a boyhood dream and visit a factory where airline meals are made. I showed up on a Sunday morning, a mile from Heathrow's Terminal 5 at a windowless refrigerated factory owned by the Swiss company Gate Gourmet, where 80,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners, all intended for ingestion within the following 15 hours somewhere in the troposphere, were being made up by a group of women from South-East Asia and the Baltic.

Korean Airlines would be serving beef broth, JAL salmon teriyaki and Air France a chicken escalope on a bed of puréed carrots. Foods that would later be segregated according to their intended airline and destination now mingled freely together, much like passengers in the terminal, so that a tray containing a thousand plates of Dubai-bound Emirates hummus might be lined up in the freezer room next to four trolleys full of SAS gravadlax, set to fly partway to Stockholm.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of airplane food is that it seems to stand at a point of maximum tension between the manmade and the natural. Even the most anaemic tomato (and the ones at Gate Gourmet were mesmerising in their fibrous pallor) remains a work of nature. How odd, then, that we should take our fruit and vegetables up into the sky with us, when we used to sit humbly at nature's feet, hosting festivals to honour the year's wheat crop and sacrificing animals to ensure the continued fecundity of the earth.

There is no need for such prostration now. A batch of 20,000 cutlets, which had once, if only briefly, been attached to lambs born and nursed on Welsh hillsides, were driven in to the depot. Within hours, with the addition of a breadcrumb topping, a portion of these would metamorphose into entrees for business-class meals that would be eaten over Nigeria – with no thought or thanks given to their author, 26-year-old Ruta from Lithuania.

Airlines never encourage their passengers to reflect on the humans that might be making up their meals. We are even more uninclined to spare a thought for those who might be doing the washing up. I observed the arrival of the entire used catering contents of an Airbus A380 and the way that 10 women, all originally from Sri Lanka, set to work on the debris, carefully unsticking Business Class linen napkins from chocolate cakes in which passengers had stuck them somewhere above Romania a few hours before.

Nevertheless, there are also some perks to working at Gate Gourmet. Airlines routinely misjudge passenger numbers and when they do so, any extra meals are sent up to the canteen. It isn't unusual to see a table full of workers, each one of which is eating a meal intended for a different airline; one employee working his way through a chicken breast that was intended to be consumed en route to Moscow; another eating a set of pickles that should have journeyed to Tokyo.

In offices to the side of the production lines, administrative staff help to type up the contents of the food about to be sent into the air. There can be few literary works in any language as poetic as airline menus.

The autumn blast/......... Blows along the stones/On Mount Asama. Lines composed by Matsuo Basho, the Japanese poet who brought the haiku form to its mature perfection in the Edo era. But these were wholly unevocative next to the verse of the poet at work somewhere within Gate Gourmet's catering operation: Delicate field greens with sun-dried cranberries/Poached pears, Gorgonzola cheese/And candied walnuts in a Zinfandel vinaigrette.

This delight being on offer to all those fortunate enough to sit at the front of Etihad's luxurious aircraft. If only the airline had gone all the way and offered its passengers true excitement: a little tour of the catering facilities, or at least a well-printed illustrated booklet describing the premises.

This piece is based on the experiences collected in Alain de Botton's new book, A week at the Airport – A Heathrow Diary, published by Profile Books (£8.99).