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On Air Travel and the Inevitability of Mediocrity

I have long had a strange relationship with air travel. Since I was a child, I’ve both loved and hated it in almost equal proportions. As I’ve aged, the hatred has changed from being due to a fear of crashing to an annoyance with people who don’t seem to understand the way that an airport works, but behind it the love has stayed the same.

That love breaks down in to two parts. Firstly there’s the physical act of flying itself. Even in my days of petrified fear, I still appreciated the strange beauty of looking out of the window and seeing the land- or cloudscape stretching off into the distance below us. However, even stronger than that is a love of the onboard service.

Over the years I’ve lost the fascination with the novelty of shopping while on a plane, although the piles of incomplete decks of playing cards emblazoned with the logos of Lauda Air, British Airways and  a selection of late-and-unlamented charter companies show that was not always the case. These days the service element that interests me is, fairly obviously based on my current proclivities, the food and drink.

Ever since I discovered that Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, purveyors of the ‘drinks are included in the price of your flight’ way of running a plane, will give you multiple drinks during a single seat-side visit, my fear of flying has significantly reduced. These days I don’t load up with booze, but in my initial working years, with regular seven hour flits to New York on the cards, a Bloody Mary, G&T and a beer would happily drop the anxiety levels long enough for me to sit calmly until my inflight meal and miniature bottle of inappropriately cold bottle of red wine would appear.

The Bloody Mary still holds a place in my heart due to those flights. For some reason, it had never occurred to me to drink a Bloody Mary when on the ground, but as soon as we hit the clouds it made sense. I’ve read articles that suggest the combination of acidic tomato juice and spice overcome the tastebud-dulling effects of recirculated air and a pressurised cabin, but for whatever reason my love of the Bloody Mary spilled over from up in the air to down on the ground, and eventually became a love of adulterated tomato juice. These days the addition of vodka just seems like a waste of tomato juice to me, although a Red Snapper, with gin rather than vodka, is a different matter altogether…

Food remains one of the most important pieces of any journey for me, with my occasionally obsessive planning always including opportunities to eat. With air travel, this includes the oft-criticised airline meal, something of which I remain incredibly fond. I can safely say that I have eaten very part of every meal I have been given on an airline since I first flew 30 years ago, apart from the suspicious looking mushrooms that Virgin Atlantic used to serve as part of their ‘English Breakfast’ on early morning flights from JFK and Newark in the early 2000s. I still remember their worrying and unique shade of grey. It’s not generally good, but I love the way that they produce food of the impressive quality that they do under the space, storage, reheating, serving and financial constraints that they operate under.

At school, during a home economics project where I burned onions and made a grey quiche ‘to be served in the cafeteria of a municipal leisure centre’, a brief I somehow came up with myself, one of my classmates rustled up an airline meal. His mother worked for Monarch and had scored him a liveried set of dishes and a tray, which he filled with food and presented to our teacher. I have no memory of what he cooked, but I still remember that I was jealous of him having had the chance to have a go. And for having a better idea than cooking for a leisure centre, a type of institution I had then, and still have now, managed to avoid.

That love of the usually-grim eating experience extends to the terminal food options, the word terminal being especially appropriate to my recent experience in Terminal Five. London Heathrow’s shiny new wing has decided to up the game from the old school pub-grub and occasional-passable-restaurant affair of terminals 1-4, and has brought in chains and names. I’ve now eaten in the three biggest, finishing on this trip with the meal that inspired me to give up my reading time on the flight and tap this out on an airplane-moded iPad instead.

Firstly, Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food.  I tried this out shortly after it opened and found it to be quite pleasant. Not too badly priced and along the same level of quality as Chez Gerard, my ‘this is on expenses’ hangout in Terminal 3 from the days when I used to travel more frequently. The only serious issue I had was one common across all airport eating experiences in recent times – the knives.

To ensure that you don’t smuggle the blunt cutlery out of a restaurant and on to a plane, therein to commit mayhem, they issue something that is akin to a handle with a slightly thinned end. These seem to offer about the same amount of potential menace as a regular restaurant knife, but without the same levels of utility in the cutting and general shifting around of food departments. They annoy me almost as much as the ban on liquids in hand luggage does. Which, with my tendency to travel only with hand luggage and my occasional weakness for purchasing booze, is a lot.

Secondly, we have Wagamama. The T5 Wagamama has a twist on their regular restaurants (noodle and rice heavy, anglicised Japanese food), with breakfasts available during the usual hours when breakfasts are available. My last trip, to Glasgow on my way to the Islay Festival, fell within those hours, so breakfast was sought. Along with the various traditionally English breakfast options, they have some more Japanese choices, and, being a lovely of rice and pickles, I partook. The food was good but slow to appear,  despite the simplicity, and it took even longer to attract the attention of a member of staff to pay, despite my being sat right next to the till, in the entrance of the restaurant, where all the staff congregate. They get a definite pass though, as I always arrive horrifically early to ensure I get the most out of my airport experience, and therefore had time to fill. I would have returned on my most recent trip if it wasn’t for their kitchen being inexplicably closed at 12:30pm. “I don’t know if it will be 5 minutes, 15 or 30 before it reopens,” the apologetic waitress barring entry explained. Despite having time, I don’t hang around when I’m at an airport, so I left and went to the remaining option.

So, thirdly: Giraffe. I generally consider Giraffe to be inoffensive enough. Their burgers aren’t bad, their ‘Mexican’ dishes are okay, and in general they’re a fairly safe bet for finding edible food that shouldn’t take too long to appear. While service was snappy, I was wrong about the edibility.

Eschewing my regular order, the tried and tested huevos rancheros, having filled up earlier with an ‘all of the things in my fridge that might go off before Friday’ breakfast of bacon lardons and slightly gamey eggs, I went for the Chilli Beef Enchilada. The menu describes it thusly:

Oven baked soft tortillas stuffed with chilli beef & herby rice, topped with adobe sauce, melting cheese, tomato salsa & toasted seeds. served with chopped seasonal salad.

I received an earthenware dish containing what looked like a be-tortilla’d take on a lasagne. So far so good, despite it having the usual ‘digging lasagne out of a single serving dish’ issue that I get at the cafe near work, where small chunks of volcanic food are removed and then held, dripping, above the rest of one’s plate until they have cooled to the extent that the enamel of your teeth does not melt on contact. This issue is exacerbated by my peeve of a few paragraphs ago, the airport knife. The lack of any useful food manipulation surface on the knife and a short blade make the already tricky task even more so.

My main problem with the dish appeared once I had been able manipulate a portion of enchilada out of the dish and into a position where I could eat it with minimal heat-related discomfort: the rice was not inside the enchilada. Now, this may seem like a small annoyance, but when you are creating an oven-baked, tortilla-wrapped dish, the removal of any ingredient from within the confines of the wrap is a crime. The turning of rice from being a filling to being a sprinkling in the bottom of the cooking dish is a capital one. However, it didn’t stop there. Rather than a gentle herby seasoning, as I expected from the description, I instead received a blast of lemon more than vaguely reminiscent of toilet cleaner. A lemon unlike any lemon that had walked the earth, squirted from the bowels of satan’s very own bathroom. I tried to douse it with escaped beef, inexplicably liquid cheese and flavourless tomato salsa, but to no avail. It lingered and cut through the flavours of everything more effectively than Domestos. It was an abomination.

I finished every last grain.

Gatwick is next on my itinerary. It’s an early morning flight and I see a breakfast in my future, planned into my schedule weeks in advance, despite the 5am rising time needed to get to the airport on time. Some might say that eating breakfast at the other end, once I get to Glasgow city centre hours before the bus to Dramboree leaves, would be a better option, but that wouldn’t be in an airport. Which makes it a poor substitute, no matter how much better it might be.


Comment from Jason B. Standing
Time 29th July 2014 at 1:11 pm

I found a practical use for inflight “catering” once – upon returning to London from a SPLENDID weekend in Marseille I found that the so-called “ham and cheese croissant” diligently flung into my lap by the British Airways team served as the perfect stepping stone and readjustment tool to go from the blissfully pleasurable days of baguettes, jambon et fromage back to the more realistic expectations that British Cuisine often forces one to have. Without that bridging pastry, I shudder to think what sort of systemic shock I’d have endured.

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