Guest Blogger; Graham Howe writes for The Horse’s Mouth

We are delighted to have Graham Howe as our guest blogger this month on the Horse’s Mouth. This is the first of two posts by Graham on interesting food and wine pairing experiences.

Graham is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa’s most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel  features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years. He is wine and food editor of Habitat – and a lifestyle columnist for Business Day, ClassicWine, Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA. When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent – and for the weekly travel show on SAFM  radio. Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha – and  entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra .

Grahame Howe

Over lunch with Heston Blumenthal in Cape Town, Graham Howe learns about “height cuisine”, before flying to London to put the new science of food and wine at altitude to the test.

It’s not often I’m invited to do lunch with one of the world’s most famous chefs. I jumped at the opportunity to meet Heston Blumenthal when he popped into Cape Town to promote the innovative “height cuisine” he developed for British Airways as one of the culinary challenges in “Mission Impossible”, his new BBC food series. Over lunch at Ellerman House, the high-flying chef spoke about ways to enhance the aroma, flavour and texture of food and wine at altitude – served in the dry, noisy, dehydrated, pressurised atmosphere of an aircraft at 12 000 metres above the ground.

Super-chef Heston Blumenthal at Ellerman House, Cape Town

The wunderkind turned food chemist spent weeks in his kitchen laboratory and in a replica pressurised cabin on the ground looking at how to improve the quality of in-flight menus – a common passenger grumble on all airlines. His crew tasted water flavoured with varying quantities of sugar and salt to study flavour on the ground and in a pressurised environment. They measured ground humidity at 65% with in-flight humidity across travel classes – 35% in economy, 12% in business and 6% in first. And they studied how dry, in-flight conditions affect your sense of smell and taste.

He quips, “Does anyone nasal douche?!” He explains, “Wine tastes completely different if you do. Who says wine doesn’t travel?” (Incidentally, he’s a fan of south African wine, his father once owned a wine farm in Franschhoek, he eats at The Test Kitchen – and he stocks Boekenhoutskloof, Hamilton Russell and Eben Sadie’s Columella on the wine-list at The Fat Duck). After talking about sensory triggers and the overriding role of memory in learned flavour associations, he emphasises that flavour = taste plus aroma. “Our emotional response to food is the most important”.

The flying chef illustrates his point via a simple exercise of smelling and tasting vanilla pods and olives, He explains, “We eat with all our senses. If you eat with your fingers in your ears or a blocked nose, you can’t taste your food properly. In-flight food is about simplicity, layering food with flavour encapsulation (bursts). Acidity (especially glutamate acid) is important in the air – to rehydrate your mouth.” So are robust sauces, spices, curries, citrus and the flavour burst of whole seeds in your mouth in the white noise environment of aircraft where you can’t hear yourself chew.

Heston reveals the cornerstone of “height cuisine” is the Japanese science of “umami” – the fifth savoury taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour – found in ingredients like parmesan, soya, seaweed, fermented fish sauce, mackerel, mushrooms and tomato seeds. But does it work in the air? Is airline food getting better? We were invited to put the new science of height cuisine to the test at 12 000 metres en route via British Airways from Johannesburg to London and back. An explanation of Heston’s principles of height cuisine in both food and wine is prominent on the new menus.

I chose dishes based on fresh ingredients naturally high in umami. The menus I tried on the outbound (first-class) and inbound (business) BA flights feature stronger, savoury and spicy flavours in vegetable bobotie with tomato and coriander, corn-fed chicken with mango mousse in a creamy curry, Karoo beef in Shiraz sauce with seared fennel, parmesan and gruyere soufflé, Caesar salad with anchovies. Mmmmm, umami flavours. The in-flight fare passed the mile-high test with bigger flavours.

Onboard catering 85 years on on British Airways

The regional menus and wines on flights in and out of South Africa have a South African theme – from springbok carpaccio to bobotie. The wines are specifically chosen for fruitier, full-bodied flavours as lighter, delicate flavours disappear in a dry atmosphere in the air. British Airways won the Best Airline First Class in the “Wines on the Wing” 2012 awards held by Global Traveller magazine, while Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2010 was named the best First Class Red wine in the world. BA has featured nine South African wines during 2012, some of which I tasted en route – Eagles Nest Viognier 2010, Tokara Sauvignon Blanc 2011, La Motte Shiraz 2009, Simonsig Frans Malan Reserve 2007 and Jordan The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc 2009.

On arrival, our South African media group went behind the scenes at Heathrow airport at Gate Gourmet, the in-house kitchens where all food is made fresh daily for 85 outgoing BA flights. We were given a rare peek behind the scenes on a walking tour through all the stations where 1000 cooks put together all BA meals and umami ingredients. In the interests of hygiene, I had to wear a white coat, a hair net and even a beard net called a “snood”! I was fascinated by quality control – every dish is tasted seven times on the way to your tray. And, yes, Heston pops in occasionally. You wouldn’t think so much effort goes into putting together your in-flight meal on a tray.

Alex Bazeley of Bibendum, the wine selectors for British Airways, led a fascinating tasting of some of the fine wines served in first and business class in the last quarter of 2012. He explains, “We’ve tasted wines before and after take-off to look at how altitude affects taste and changes the profile of wine; at how alcohol, acidity and tannins become more apparent and how some soft fruit flavours decline. We’ve always known that aroma and flavour alters at altitude in a dry, pressurised cabin.” (Past SAA research confirm that cabin conditions accentuate unripe tannins, oak tannins, herbaceous fruit and acidity; make citrus and riper berry fruits more accessible; but reduce soft fruit flavours, vanilla, coffee and cocoa flavours.)

Height cuisine in Club World, British Airways

For the first time, British Airways will serve three wines from one producer on its service to South Africa in December – Mullineux Syrah 2010, Mullineux White Blend 2011 and Mullineux Straw Wine 2010. A great window of opportunity for Chris and Andrea Mullineux – as the wines of Riebeek-Kasteel spread their wings. Bazeley comments, “The Swartland is very ‘hot’”. We wanted to show that BA is on top of trends in South Africa.” The intense dried apricot, peach and marmalade of Mullineux Straw Wine 2010 was a superb match for apple tarte tatin on the menu.

We joined a team of team of chefs who taste a dozen new dishes from the developmental kitchen three times weekly. After watching the BA kitchen brigade make a crayfish, fennel and lime starter and mezze platter, we sat down to a tasting of height cuisine on the ground – from Loch Fyne wild smoked haddock to a Best of British cheese board. A flute of Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle, a prestige cuvee and we were up, up and away.  Even the food is plated so it doesn’t slip off the tray on take-off! Every day they make meals for 5000 BA first class and business passengers here.

Christopher Cole, F&B manager of British Airways, told me, “Food and wine figures way up there in the way that passengers tell the story of their in-flight experience. Height cuisine was meant to kick-start British Airway into a new era – and it’s been enormously successful. We’ve gone back to working with in-house chefs – and frequent flyer surveys show that customer satisfaction has increased enormously.”

On a tour of the bonded wine warehouse at Gate Gourmet, I discovered that in-flight wine service is big business. Check out the quirky facts on the mile-high wine circuit. First and business class passengers on British Airways consumed over half a million bottles of champagne and over a million bottles of wine last year. Red wine is the most popular choice onboard BA flights (52%) while white wine is more popular in the airport lounges (57%). On a flight to New York, BA carries 35 bottles of wine in First, 84 in Club World and 390 quarter bottles in World Traveller (economy).

The first in-flight meals were served in 1927 on the London-Paris service

Airline food and wine has come a long way since Imperial Airways, BA’s predecessor, served the first in-flight meal from London to Paris in 1927 – taking out two seats for the steward and his sandwich, biscuit and tea trolley – a novel idea at the time. We headed into the city to explore the culinary delights of London Restaurant Week.

Images thanks to Graham Howe

Article originally published by wine.co.za

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