Monday, 27 October 2014

Airport food

I find it bizarre that the food you find in airports is of such variable quality. And even more bizarre that some of the countries with a well-deserved reputation for the quality of their cooking - I refer, for example, to France and Italy - can allow such a reputation to be diminished by the food available at the very point of arrival into or departure from that country.

Of course, it might be said that the marketplace is prevailing: why bother to provide decent food when all passengers want is fast food? Or the lack of a marketplace. With a captive audience, there is no harm in serving expensive badly-cooked food because there is nowhere else for the passengers to go, particularly past security. My rejoinders to these hypothetical defences are simple. First, decent food and fast food are not mutually exclusive, as Nigel Slater has demonstrated repeatedly in his various books with "Fast" in the title. Second, the ludicrous time an airline requires its passengers to check in to the flight in advance of its departure usually gives ample time for a decent meal. I reckon that holidaying passengers will often be willing to splash out for a decent meal on the first day of the holiday. Finally, there are those who, faced with a lousy choice of food, will choose simply to go without. I am one of them.

Let me name and shame, and name and congratulate. Pisa Airport: plasticky mozzarella and tomato rolls were all on offer; and my companions and I nearly caused a diplomatic incident in our response to correspondingly rude staff. By contrast, the airport in Naples offered good though expensive buffalo mozzarella: sadly we only ran into it after we had run the gauntlet of nasty sliced bread sandwiches and bought them with regret, thinking there would be nothing else.

As for France, at Nice Airport there was nothing of interest. Yet this from the city that named an internationally renowned salad. The Spanish airports fare better in my estimation. I do not know what lies beyond customs at Madrid, having only transferred flights there. But within the wood between the worlds there was a reasonable selection of raw ham rolls and chorizo rolls.

The airport on Crete possibly comes bottom of the pile: the only thing that was edible - term used loosely - was a hot dog. So poor was its quality that we returned it and demanded our money back.

Far more impressive was Warsaw Airport. Beyond security, a cafeteria selling an array of interesting and tasty dishes: comfort food such as Beef Stroganoff. And Tokyo Airport, where I have just eaten my way through a plate of exceptional Sushi. One of my fellow diners had just landed - I was leaving Japan - from France and had been so missing Sushi that he had immediately headed for this restaurant. I could have eaten perfectly adequately for less than a fiver. Instead I went for a pricier set. There were sushi chefs behind the counter making up the plates. Green tea was complimentary.

This place, I confess, was before security. I was more fearful that there would be nothing beyond that I ignored the signs to head for my gate. And, as a result, no sooner had I gone through all the formalities than it was time to board my flight: so no sitting around fruitlessly. And I noticed, on my hasty journey to the gate, that there was at least one perfectly good looking Sushi restaurant here as well. But at double the prices, I wondered?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Long haul flights

These musings occur to me on a flight from Tokyo to Vienna - both excellent places but the parts in between, certainly on the current flight path, seem to me to be a little barren.

First, I am convinced that one of the two outer seats in the bank of four is the best to aim for. There is always a chance that the passenger next to you will choose to clamber out on the other side if you are asleep. The other two passengers are almost bound to do so.

Airline food is almost always disgusting: Victoria Wood once summed it up well when she described the passenger next to her who ate everything: "He ate the salt and pepper. He ate the little towelette thing for wiping your hands on. He even ate the thing I thought they only put there for a joke, you know the tinned pear and the dream topping." When comedians make you realise how we've always thought something but never dared to say it out loud.

The meal just served by Austrian Airlines fell, I am afraid, into the disgusting category. There was a choice between "Asian Chicken" and "Western Pork". I plumped for the chicken, on the grounds that we were in Asia and the food was likely to have been made there by people more experienced in putting together Asian food than Western food. The chicken had been so finely minced that it was indistinguishable from the insipid sauce surrounding it. Remind me, on another occasion, to write an entry on the western style sliced bread they give you in India.

The only exceptions to the rule about poor food are, in my view, when snacks are purveyed. Air France provided a perfectly good baguette filled with Mountain Ham on a flight from Paris to London once. Fortunately there was no time to heat up any food. A different kind of ham but none the worse for it was given to me by the staff on a USAir internal flight. I recall a particular awkwardness: I wanted a tomato juice to go with it. How, though, should I say tomato?

Sunday, 19 October 2014


On our first night in Tokyo, we had been told that we were going to a "Japanese style pub" mainly known for its "grilled chicken". My expectations were not high: I thought of a pub abroad; I thought of KFC.

We were running late and a little lost on one of the walkways high above Tokyo where we could see the lights from the lifts rushing up the skyscrapers at extraordinary speeds. Someone speculated about what would happen if the lift failed to stop. We were saved from these morbid thoughts by one of the hosts of the place we were trying to find, who had managed to find us huddled together and wondering which way to go next.

He escorted us to "Hinaiya" where it was not merely coats off but shoes off and into lockers. Then we had to work out the most dignified way of sitting on the low benches at our table. Around us was an array of pots, jugs and plates. Soy sauce and red powder in a pot. Wet towels.

Then a series of delicacies arrived starting with a little bowl with tiny mushrooms in salad. Then a bowl with what looked like flash fried tuna with seaweed on top. But no. Someone realised it was in fact chicken, seared on the outside but raw within. Raw fish, raw steak: no problem. But raw chicken? Someone muttered something about Salmonella. We each tried some, tentatively at first but before long the bowl was empty. The chicken had been marinated in Wasabi.

Never before had I imagined how many ways it was possible to serve chicken. But there then arrived bowl after bowl of chicken: on skewers, steamed, fried pieces of skin, flash fried wings, chicken livers, chicken heart... More salad. Our waiter told us to stack the skewers into a tall pot for the purpose. Minced chicken on a skewer with a raw egg. And vegetables on skewers, including Gingko nuts - tiny and green, tasting like roasted chestnuts.

Time to hit the night life of Tokyo...