Plane food: universally terrible and unlikely to improve. That’s the bad news. The good news? There are things you can do to improve your mile-high dining experience.
But before we explore these unlikely culinary hacks, it’s important to understand why plane food tastes so bad in the first place. There are a few factors at play.
One of the main issues is, unsurprisingly, freshness – or, rather, lack of it. The food served up there is produced in huge quantities hours before your flight takes off and is reheated in convection ovens by the cabin crew. Farm to fork this isn’t.
Profit margins are also working against your palate: when an airline is flying you to Thailand for £350, you can’t really expect them to serve haute cuisine. Hence why first and business class passengers are served better fare.
But even high-rolling passengers are destined to have a compromised culinary experience for one inescapable reason: food tastes different at altitude.
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“The lower cabin pressure, dry cabin air and loud engine noise all contribute to our inability to taste and smell food and drink,” Professor Charles Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, told Telegraph Travel.
According to Professor Spence, who lectures at Oxford University, there are a few things passengers can do to mitigate the taste-suppressing effects of travelling by plane.
“Donning a pair of noise-cancelling headphones could actually be one of the simplest ways in which to make food and drink taste better at altitude,” he writes.
Chefs at the Fat Duck Restaurant in Bray – Heston Blumenthal’s coveted establishment – go one step further. They claim listening to soundscapes that contain lots of tinkling, high-pitched notes can actually accentuate our perception of sweetness by 10 per cent.
Their research, done with the help of Professor Spence, also found that low-pitched noises accentuate bitterness by the same amount.
“The effects, it should be said, weren’t huge, but they were large enough to potentially make a difference to the tasting experience while up in the air,” writes Spence.
Another taste-enhancing tip is to pause the movie you’re watching.
“According to ground-based research,” writes Spence, “you ought to find that you enjoy your food a little more while, at the same time, find yourself satisfied with less of it.”
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What about the high-altitude, which makes it harder for us to taste sweet, sour, salty and bitter? We can’t change that, can we? Of course not, but Professor Spence claims there are choices we can make that mitigate against its effect.
He cites research from Barry Smith, a philosopher and wine writer working out of the University of London, who noticed that high-altitude wines, such a Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, tend to be rated better in the air than on the ground.
Smith claims this is because the atmospheric conditions on the mountains, where many of these wines are made, are closer to those found in an aeroplane cabin than for some other wines.
Finally, if you want to eke even more flavour out of your inflight meal, you’ll need to address your dry nasal passage, which is caused by dry cabin air.
“Heston Blumenthal came up with his own idiosyncratic solution to this particular problem,” writes Professor Spence. “His recommendation was… a nasal douche.”
However, this could have unintended consequences, warns Professor Spence. “Should the nasal douche work as hoped, it would also increase your ability to smell the passengers sitting close by,” he explains. “Are you sure that is really what you want?”