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Swellboy on… airline food

Airline food? Don’t scoff; it can be exceedingly good

Swellboy on… airline food

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 05 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am not just being contrary, but I do think that airline food gets a bad press. Ian Fleming, that literary master of the material comforts that we can salvage from our journey through life, managed to get fairly excited by the thought of what I suppose would have been known as a “slap-up meal with all the trimmings” – delightful term – en avion.

You can really sense the excitement and glamour of early airline travel in his 1956 novel, Diamonds Are Forever. After Bond has enjoyed his first in-flight cigarette and then had to decide whether to head for the cocktail lounge or simply to wait for “the steward to wheel round the tray of cocktails and the caviar and smoked salmon canapés”, his Stratocruiser touches down in Shannon aiport, allowing 007 “steak and champagne for dinner and the wonderful goblet of hot coffee laced with Irish whisky and topped with half an inch of thick cream”. If there is a man capable of transforming an Irish coffee (the Black Forest gateau of post-prandial drinks) into a status-conferring beverage, it is Fleming. But Bond has further treats in store the following morning over New York: “That inappropriate assortment of foods that BOAC advertise as ‘An English country house breakfast.’”

Fleming is not the only espionage writer keen to eulogise the delights of airborne dining. In Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, the Pooteresque narrator, Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, is introduced to a wider world by the woman he knows as Aunt Augusta. What stands out in my memory of the book is Aunt Augusta’s sensible attitude to flying. “The point is the journey,” she explains to Pulling, which is as good a life philosophy as any, and life was a journey that Aunt Augusta chose to make in first class. When he remonstrates with her about the expense of turning left on entering the cabin, she says that the difference in fare between tourist and first “is nearly wiped out by the caviar and the smoked salmon, and surely between us we can probably put away half a bottle of vodka. Not to speak of the champagne and cognac.”

I can’t remember the last time I was offered caviar on a flight and the most recent decent champagne I remember drinking on a plane was more than 15 years ago – a bottle of Dom Pérignon that I downed hurriedly for medicinal purposes, before take-off from Hong Kong airport; the old one where the wings seemed in danger of brushing the high-rise buildings.

However even though there have been changes both to my drinking habits and the catering standards, there are still culinary bright spots; one of them is the kipper and poached eggs available for breakfast in the “First” lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5. (Confusingly this is not a lounge specifically for first-class passengers – they visit the Concorde lounge, where presumably buckets of caviar and rehoboams of Cristal are dispensed with liberality.) But better even than the kipper is the clotted cream tea that is still available both in the First lounge and, if you happen to be flying on BA at around 3.30pm, in the air; a real high tea, so to speak.

I love a cream tea: there is nothing like it. I think that it is little short of heroic that BA continues to serve it. I would have thought that, along with smoking, the cream tea, with all its worryingly healthless attributes, would have been banned in favour of a “wellbeing in the air”-type mid-afternoon snack of dried fruit and miso soup.

I can only imagine that there is some sort of highly significant physiological law that dictates that if you eat your scones, jam and Devon clotted cream at 35,000 feet, it has no calories at all.

See also

Airline Food, People