Wine being poured into two glasses at a picturesque location.(Unsplash)
Wine being poured into two glasses at a picturesque location.(Unsplash)

Days of wine and no roses: The glory days of airline catering are ending

In this week’s column of The Taste With Vir, Vir Sanghvi throws light on in-flight food being served on flights in both the domestic and international sector and the wine that often accompanies the meals.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON MAY 16, 2019 09:27 AM IST

I am writing this on board a Vistara flight from Delhi to Bangalore having just finished my inflight snack. This may strike you as too much information, but in my little life, it is actually quite a big deal.

I don’t usually eat or drink on aeroplanes if I can help it (unless I have brought my own food ) but the Bangalore-Delhi flight is an exception. It is too long to survive without any food. Given that it takes me an hour to drive to Delhi or Bangalore airport and that I have to get there at least an hour before takeoff for a two and a half hour flight, I find that six hours without any kind of food is a bit long.

Sometimes I pack my own food which is still my preference: last month I flew Air India from Washington DC to Delhi, a long, long journey and refused to touch any of the inflight meals, preferring to eat what I had packed for myself.

But, on this occasion, because Vistara subjected us to serial delays and because the lounge at Delhi airport was over-crowded and dirty (perhaps they have hired their staff from the Plaza lounge elsewhere in the building), I was hungry enough to eat the inflight snack.

It wasn’t great but it was perfectly edible (batter fried chicken, potato-spinach kababs, gulab jamun and sadly, a very dodgy paneer patty) and took the edge off my hunger. I was reminded of the fact that few Indian airlines spend as much on food as Vistara does. Given that they use the same flight kitchens as everybody else (there isn’t that much choice and I suspect Vistara might be obliged to use the Taj Kitchen --- a Singapore-Tata operation, like the airline), the main determinant of quality is price and Vistara simply pays more per meal, especially for premium passengers.

The truth however is that airline food can rarely be very good—especially at the back of the aircraft (on Air-India even the First Class food is revolting) because a) airlines pay so little for it, b) most of it is made in industrial kitchens by second rate cooks and c) it is usually made many, many hours before being served and is often inexpertly reheated by crews in aircraft galleys.

Gordon Ramsay, who dabbled in airline food for a while as a Celebrity Chef for an airline I will not embarrass by naming, refuses to eat on planes because he says he knows how the food is really made.

Chefs and airlines don’t understand what profoundly depressing places flight kitchens are for visitors.You have got to really hate food to enjoy watching some chef make 2000 portions of disgusting scrambled eggs at one go, knowing that they will first congeal and then be reheated and served eight to twelve hours later. And yet chefs will invite you to visit flight kitchens. Even airline executives in charge of inflight catering will say things like “Come and visit our kitchen. You know we turn out 20000 meals a day”, not knowing how horrible the industrialisation of food sounds to anybody who cares about the stuff.

And yet, there must be a magic formula. You can sometimes eat well on planes. A friend flew First Class on Air France and raved about the cuisine, overseen apparently by Alain Ducasse. The best reason for flying Qantas is that the food (up front, at least), is always of restaurant quality. On Thai Airways, even the basic Thai meal uplifted from Bangkok (don’t eat non-Thai food and don’t eat it if it has been uplifted from say, Delhi) is as good as the Thai food at most Thai restaurants in India, Emirates manages restaurant-quality meals in First Class (though not in Business).

I don’t know if there really is a secret apart from the obvious one --- the food is better when you pay more and cook it in smaller quantities, as airlines tend to do with First Class meals. It is a funny thing but when the food does not come from flight kitchens but from restaurants, it is always far superior. Even Air-India and Jet, which had no great reputation for inflight food, managed good Indian meals out of London (for premium passengers) when they outsourced them to such restaurants as Quilon and Veeraswamy’s.

In the old days, when airlines realised that food presented a special set of problems (in terms of reheating) they made up for it by giving premium passengers good wine to drink. The well-known wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote a few months ago about how she was on the wine tasting panel for British Airways during its glory days.

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All wines were tasted blind so the panel was not swayed by labels or prices. Consequently British Airways always had good wines in First and Business.

In that era, even Air India served perfectly reasonable First Class wines (Dom Perignon in First Class and a very nice Vosne Romanee) and when Jet started its international operations, it served Krug Champagne in First, Dom in Business and such very drinkable whites as Chablis Les Clos and Puligny Montrachet. (Till the airline closed, its First Class wines were always very good though Business Class got plonk.)

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Then, many airlines began cutting back. According to Robinson, Willie Walsh, the chief executive who ran British Airways’ reputation to the ground, dissolved the wine panel and put a ceiling of £6 per bottle on the First Class wines. Robinson says that shouldn’t really have mattered because wines were tasted blind and there were always bargains to be had. But British began choosing wines on the basis of price not blind tastings.

There are still Eastern carriers which will serve reasonable wine in First Class (Singapore Airlines, for one) but mostly, the action has shifted to the Middle East. I don’t really care that much about flying First on medium haul flights (Business is really as comfortable for that length of time) but if I am flying to Dubai I will try to take a meal-time flight and fly Emirates Fist Class.

It is the only airline that I fly reasonably often that will serve top class wines on all sectors, including on occasion, First Growth Bordeaux. It is the world’s largest buyer of Dom Perignon but it is one of the few airlines I know that will often serve Dom Perignon Plenitude (or P2) made from Dom vintages that have been allowed to mature on the lees for longer. (Sorry for all the nerdy wine stuff , but basically it means that P2 is better than the average Dom.)

Why does Emirates do this? I have no real answer. I have written before about their First Class lounge at Dubai airport which has a haute cuisine restaurant attached (everything is free) and where the waiters offer you a choice of great wines. (My waiter once produced a bottle of Mouton Rothschild for me.)

My guess is that whoever runs the airline really cares about wine. Emirates keeps vast stocks of wine in France and no wine in Emirates (even the stuff in economy) will ever be bad. I reckon that you can make up the difference between the Business Class and First Class fare (at least on the India-Dubai sector) simply by drinking wisely.

Does it matter what wine you serve at the front of the aircraft? I believe it does. It shows how committed you are to quality. Some years ago, Air India invited me for a tasting to help choose the inflight wines. Budgets were limited but the rest of the panel and I were able to find really good wines (many of them from the lesser known villages of Burgundy) at extremely reasonable prices. For a year or two, I think, Air-India served those wines and it was a pleasure to travel on their flights.

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Then, they dumped the selection and it was back to the mixture of supermarket brands and cat’s piss that they now serve. (Should you be serving Sula on First Class given how high the fares are? The mind boggles.) Obviously somebody there has some reason to buy this ditchwater.

So what should you do? If you are flying domestically try not to eat or try and buy the pre-packaged food they sometimes sell at the back of the aircraft (a packet of tortilla chips tastes better than the flight kitchen meal).

If you are flying international and it is a long flight, you may have no choice. I pack lots of quality cold meat if I am flying back to India from abroad. At some airports I buy a bottle of wine and charm the crew into opening it for me. (I am not sure that most airlines allow them to do this officially).

If you are a vegetarian then remember that my Gujarati grandmother had the perfect solution: theplas or khakras.

How can anyone go wrong with that?

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