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British Airways takes flavours to new heights

21 Jul 2011

British Airways (BA) introduced in June a new “Height Cuisine” menu on its business and first class services, designed to maximise the taste of its dishes at altitude by using recipes that are naturally high in umami. This savoury flavour is considered the “fifth taste” – after sweet, sour, salt and bitter – detectable by the human palate.

This comes as a result of a TV show, Heston’s Mission Impossible, broadcast earlier this year in the UK, in which BA challenged celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to create the ultimate in-flight meal.

Blumenthal specialises in the “science of food”, and during the show he demonstrated that flying at altitude has a huge effect on people’s sense of taste. The interior of a plane has the same humidity as the Sahara Desert (averaging below 30 percent), thus hygroscopic elements like salt and sugar can barely be tasted. Pressure, turbulence and the disorientating effect of crossing time zones also affect travellers both physically and emotionally.

All these factors come into play at meal times, leading to the time-honoured complaint that airline food is bland and tasteless. However, Blumenthal discovered that the umami flavour, present in foods such as soy sauce, seaweed, mackerel, mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan cheese, remains unaffected to a person’s taste buds at altitude. His answer to the challenge was to use umami-rich ingredients in special recipes, and his “seaweed shepherd’s pie” subsequently got rave reviews from passengers. BA has followed his recommendation, and now offers a range of umami-based dishes across its network in First and Club World.

British Airways has also become the first airline to serve an English sparkling wine on board its flights and in its lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5 between July and September. Balfour Brut Rosé from the Hush Heath winery in Kent will be served alongside an existing range of Champagnes.

This is a bold move, as perceptions of English wine are traditionally less than rhapsodic, but the Hush Heath Estate’s wines have enjoyed tremendous international success – the 2005 vintage was a Gold Medal and trophy winner at the Decanter World Wine Awards, the first time an English wine earned this accolade.

The 2007 vintage is being released exclusively for BA. It is made from the three traditional champagne grape varieties – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – and using the strict traditional Champagne Method process. The three-years matured wine has a well-developed nose with notes of brioche, citrus and wild strawberry, and a crisp, refreshingly fruity finish.

Like many international airlines these days, BA is focusing on using locally sourced produce to save costs and lower its carbon footprint, but the airline also feels it is important to support British growers. Its suppliers include Loch Fyne fish from Scotland; Cropwell Bishop Stilton; terrines, patés and sauces from True Foods in Yorkshire; and from the same county, Shepherds Purse blue cheese and Ginger Pig longhorn beef. Adding English fizz to the list shows the carrier’s confidence in promoting its home produce to the world. However, time and passengers’ taste buds will be the final judge.

Jeremy Tredinnick

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