What tastes good at 30,000 feet?

What tastes good at 30,000 feet?

As passenger palates change, so must inflight meals. Finnair collaborates with star chefs to offer a new-wave gourmet experience – but how do they work their magic when our sense of taste is impaired by up to 30 per cent when above the clouds?

Finnair has always pampered passengers with indulgences beyond the standard bag of salted peanuts. Back in the 1960s, it was with champagne and caviar, but today’s millennials appreciate a different kind of luxury. “Simple, fresh, and seasonal” is now bang on-trend, and Finnair’s Nordic cuisine ticks all the boxes for culinary finesse – at least according to lifestyle magazine Monocle, which chose Sasu Laukkonen’s Finnair menu as the best-inflight meal experience of 2016.

“We truly believe in Nordic cuisine and we’ll continue working with Finland’s top chefs to bring our passengers superb dishes made from seasonal Finnish ingredients,” says Maarit Keränen, head of Finnair’s Service Concept. “Luckily we never have trouble finding great chefs from around the world to work with us!”

Dial up the volume

Creating an appetising inflight menu can be almost as challenging as earning a Michelin star due to the numbing combination of high altitude, low air pressure, and dry atmosphere. Up in the sky, we lose up to 30 per cent of our ability to perceive the taste and texture of food.

“Many dishes that taste great on the ground taste dull and bland up in the sky. The obvious solution is to add extra salt, but you can also dial up the intensity with smokiness, umami and by playing around with minerals. For instance, beef, spinach, and nutmeg make a perfect combination of earthy flavours,” says Laukkonen.

“You can also do great things with veggies. My personal favourite is caramelised, starchy potato soup containing baked potato peel and hazelnut,” says the Michelin-starred chef.

Let the salmon shine

“The greatest challenge is getting the moisture right,” says Pekka Terävä, creator of two Signature Menus for Finnair. “I usually go with overcooked stews. Fish such as pike tends to dry out easily, so salmon works better because of its oiliness.” Terävä consciously avoids adding too much seasoning.

“Nordic cuisine is all about purity of taste. The ingredients must be given a chance to shine – I don’t want to mask the original flavour,” says the Michelin-starred chef of Olo Restaurant. Certain ingredients such as shrimp are poor flyers, as they become chewy when heated. “And it’s impossible to incorporate delicate lettuce or fresh herbs,” says Terävä.

Complex choreography

Before a new menu is ready for rollout, it is translated into flight mode by Juha Stenholm, Head Chef of Product Development. His challenging task is to strike a compromise between culinary creativity and practical limitations.

“We spend a lot of time discussing what’s possible and what’s not. In the flight kitchen, we can’t prepare plates like in a Michelin-star restaurant, as we produce thousands of meals per day,” he says.

Among the factors that need to be considered are portion heights and weights, size of trolleys, limited storage space, and the complex timeline of cooking, cooling, packing, transporting, and reheating each meal.

Ra, ra, rye!

It’s official: rye bread is Finland’s national food. In autumn 2016, nearly 50,000 Finns voted in a public poll asking which traditional dish is the most iconically “Finnish.” The poll confirmed that Finnair has been on trend for 50 years: rye bread has been a well-loved staple on the inflight menu since the 1960s.

Sixties splendour

When Finnair launched its first Douglas DC-8 transatlantic crossings in 1969, lunch in First Class was a sinfully lavish affair. Lashings of Beluga caviar were piled high in elegant Ultimate Thule bowls by Tapio Wirkkala, accompanied by rye toast, minced onion, sour cream, egg, and lemon wedges – all washed down with generous refills of Dom Pérignon champagne and chilled Finlandia vodka.

Chocolate vs. bloody mary

Why does chocolate taste different at 30,000 feet? The answer lies between our ears, according to a study carried out by Cornell University. Tests reveal that airplane noise dulls our perception of sweetness. Curiously, the hum of jet engines was found to intensify one flavour above others: the umami flavour of tomatoes, which might explain the popularity of Bloody Marys among flyers.

Sour grapes?

One of the luxuries of flying is sipping a nice glass of wine, but many wines tend to lose their complexity up in the sky due to the dry air in the pressurised cabin, which produces the sensory equivalent of a blocked nose. Wines furthermore tend to taste more tart, acidic and tannic up in the sky. A fruity, less acidic wine works best at high altitudes, particularly a bottle-aged red with a mushroomy nose and finish. Finnair’s award-winning selection of wines is selected by experts to complement inflight meals.

Text by Silja Kudel Photos by Finnair, iStock

This story is published in Under the Northern Skies – 100 Stories Celebrating Flying, Finnair’s jubilee publication celebrating Finland’s 100-year anniversary.

P.S.: You can pre-order a copy from finnairshop.com before your next Finnair flight. It will be waiting in your seat when you board.