British Airways: Making Food Taste Great at 35,000 ft

We’ve been going to Taste of London regularly for the past few years and each year, in my opinion, it just gets better. It’s a chance for foodies from all over the UK to descend on Regent’s Park for one long weekend and sample some of the best food the capital has to offer.

British Airways are one of the festival’s main sponsors and, like the others here, have a large presence. Their Executive Club Lounge is where Silver and Gold cardholders can enjoy complimentary drinks and canapés, and take part in masterclasses. Cabin crew are on hand to give first class service and this year it was Simon who I remember for going the extra mile. He took the time to explain what was on offer, times of classes and even got us signed up for one.

British Airways Executive Lounge, Taste

With an opportunity on offer to experience their programme ‘Height Cuisine’ which looks at how to improve our culinary experience on board, we checked in for the 18:45 ‘flight’. A mocked up cabin is where customers can learn more about the lengths British Airways go to create menus with strong flavours which reflect the environmental factors of altitude, air pressure and humidity.

Height Cuisine 'plane'

Cheese and Wine Pairing

Whilst a regular flier, I’d never considered the food I eat on board. It’s true that plane food has come a long way and on most airlines (if they still serve food) it’s rare you’ll hear “Chicken, Beef or Vegetarian?” – certainly at the back of the plane! It’s here at Taste that I learn a lot more about how British Airways for one, compensate for changes to your senses in the air.

Before your plane has even taken off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out your nose and as the plane climbs, the change in air pressure ensures our sense of taste is reduced by about 30%. At 35,000 feet the humidity is kept low – at around 12% – and is drier than you’ll find in most deserts. It’s then you’ll experience dry-mouth, one result of cruising at altitude where moisture is pretty much non-existent. Humidifying a cabin would take large quantities of water, which is heavy and ultimately expensive. Units are available but for the minimal amount of improvement, it’s hardly worth the cost. Lastly, and probably the most damaging would be that condensation and damp would cause irreparable damage to the plane.

So what happens to the food and drink on board? Well scientists have found the only food that really tastes good above the clouds is ice cream. British Airways has invested a lot into developing recipes that compensate for lack of taste by using and adding stronger flavoured ingredients to food – Unami, and fresh herbs for instance. Taste of London is a perfect opportunity to share some of the science behind food at altitude. They send out 100,000 meals a day from Heathrow alone, and their food is prepared and cooked in kitchens all around the world. The programme has taken them back to basics, looking at every part of the food process from flavour to how it’s dealt with in the air.

Assembling at the ‘gate’ we were given boarding cards and join the ‘flight’.

Hot towels on board

As we prepare for ‘take off’ we’re offered hot towels and asked to put on headphones.

On Board

Once the cabin doors are switched to automatic the cheese and wine pairing begins led by Keith Issac from Patriarche Wines and Tom Badock from the Cheese Cellar. They work closely with the British Airways chefs to make sure they’ve chosen the best. As we move into the cabin, each tray table has been set up with Club World Wines and a dish of cheese.

Keith (fore) and Tom

To start we try the Tiki Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Marlborough in New Zealand which has a subtle gooseberry smell, it’s fresh and crisp on the palate and has a passion fruit and lemon finish. The acidity in the wine matches the tang of the goat cheese. It’s a classical regional pairing – the Loire Valley in France is both famous for its goat cheese and Sancerre.

We moved on to Pemberley Chardonnay 2011, Pemberton, Western Australia, a Silver Wine Challenge winner. For those of you who know their wines it’s not all about Margaret River. Pemberton is about 350,000 miles south of Perth and of the Margaret River and is fast becoming known for its Chardonnay. This wine is fermented in new and seasoned oak barrels and gets regular lees stirring which gives it a complex creamy palate. Peach, melon and subtle oak on the nose with a long crisp full flavoured finish. This is paired with a Pecorino cheese. A simple cheese with a complex taste which has been made for over 10,0000 years.

Pecorino

A strong blue was well paired with the Cline Cellars Viognier 2011 from the north coast of America. Aromas of peaches, apricots, orange blossoms and honeysuckle. It is full flavoured in the mouth with good weight of fruit and hints of spice. The finish is surprisingly elegant. No oak in this wine at all. The cheese is a Roquefort and is a great match for the full flavoured, creamy wine.

Blue

The last glass was a red, and we had to guess where it was from, shouts of “Chile” at the back of the plane and “Argentina” from me at the front. We were sipping La Puerta Alta Malbec Reserve 2011, La Rioja from Argentina. A full-bodied red, rich and round. We ate Lincolnshire Poacher made by Simon and Tim Jones fourth generation cheese makers. The cheese is made a little like traditional West Country Cheddar and is matured for 14-24 months and although the taste varies with the seasons it usually has a distinctive fruity, nutty taste with a clean sweet finish. I forgot to claim my prize for guessing correctly. Keith I’ll be back for it next year.

When we leave the ‘flight’ we’re all given a Club World Elemis in-flight amenity bag which was handy as I’d run out of lip balm but seriously, a really nice touch to a very informative and fun thirty minutes.

Seasoned Taste of London goers know the drill and when the gates are flung open to the morning and afternoon session, crowds rush to register for events and masterclasses – it really is first-come-first-served unless you’ve paid for a VIP ticket.

The other session we managed to secure a space at was the BA Handpicked Wine Selection with Kirsty Denyer from Bibendum Wine.

Kirsty Denyer, Bibendum Wines

She talked us through a series of six glasses of fine wines, why they’d been chosen and how some had been bought directly from the vineyard exclusively for British Airways.

FIne Wines

We tried three whites, three reds and a dessert wine.

F. Tinel Blondelet L’Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly Fumé 2011

Pouilly Fume

This wine is a light straw colour with a smell of freshly cut grass. It’s full bodied and crisply dry, elegant. Best matched with grilled fish or Camembert.

Eagle’s Nest Viognier 2010

Viognier

From the mountain slopes of Constantia behind Cape Town’s Table Mountain, this wine is creamy on the palate and a lovely golden colour with big smells of ripe peach, apricot and later jasmine flower. Great with seafood, grilled chicken or pasta.

Chateau Genot Boulanger 2009

Montrachet

A Puligny Montrachet from a vineyard who believes in maximum work in the vineyards and minimal intervention in the cellar. Creamy yet quite woody on the ground but would probably diminish somewhat in the air.

Such a gorgeous picture of my friend Liz enjoying a glass of one of the white wines it was rude to leave it out. I think that smile says it all.

Liz

Merry Edwards Pinot Noir 2010

Pinot Noir

One of California’s first woman wine makers, Merry Edwards now focuses on bottling Pinot Noir from her own vines, in the Russian River Valley area of California. 2010 was a year low in yield but superb in quality and this Pinot Noir is intensely fruity with hints of plummy jams, cherries and raspberries with layers of oak. Great after-taste.

Howard Park Leston Shiraz 2009

Shiraz

This wine from the Margaret River area of Australia is a vibrant red with the smell of dark plums, violets, chocolate and spice with hints of black pepper. It has a lush velvet texture. The wine was commended in the International Wine Challenge

Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 2010

Grand-Puy-Lacoste

A Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend this French wine offers a deep red colour and smells of ripe blackcurrant tinged with a slight spice. It’s a ‘grower’ in the mouth and has a powerful but well-balanced tannin structure.

Château Ste. Michelle Chenin Blanc 2006

This is an ‘ice wine’, named after the process the grapes go through to make it. After the harvest, ripe grapes are left on vines to be ‘frozen’ by the elements. When they reach a certain temperature, they’re picked and pressed while still frozen, the frozen water pressed out out as crystals of ice. The remaining juice which is incredibly high in sugar and acid allows for a more concentrated mixture of unfermented grape juice and solids, which in turn results in a smaller, concentrated amount of very sweet wine.

The wine is intensely rich and smells and tastes of very ripe melon with a clean refreshing acidity. It’s perfect served with custard-based desserts and soft cheeses.

To prove the point first made at the start of the masterclass, a guest tells the group that he’d tasted one of the reds on board a flight just a week ago and said that on the ground the taste was totally different and far more enjoyable than his experience in the air – he hadn’t enjoyed it at all at 35,000. Different palates, different taste experiences.

Wines

British Airways is clearly at the forefront of airline catering and are redefining the way that we eat and drink on planes in the future. Bravo BA, bravo!