July 16, 2013
Did you know that you lose about a third of your sensitivity to taste and smell in the air? Here at Virgin Atlantic we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our food and drink offering, and that means getting to grips with all kinds of onboard challenges. So we’re thrilled to be working in a brand alliance partnership with Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins, co-founders of London’s wildly popular MEATliquor (and two of the UK’s hottest restaurateurs to boot) in an ongoing effort to fine tune our fare.
Papoutsis and Collins are not your run of the mill success story. With previous careers spanning banking, bartending and buying up pubs (Collins) and working for the English National Ballet (Papoutsis), the pair have turned their dual obsessions with cows and cocktails into a burgeoning burger empire with a fanatical following – much of which comes down to an innate and intimate understanding of flavour. So we’re more than delighted to take advantage of their taste buds as they train their superior olfactory nerves on our nosh…
Testing and tasting airline food and drink on the ground comes with a unique set of obstacles. It can be hard to replicate onboard conditions, where altitude, cabin pressure and low humidity results in a significant decrease in sense of smell and taste, particularly in relation to sweet and salty flavour profiles. Our mouths and noses dry out and our taste buds numb, resulting in around a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in taste sensitivity.
Food that tastes great on the ground will often seem bland at 35,000 feet, so experimenting with different levels of sweetness and seasoning is key to getting it right in the air. All this means Yianni and Scott will go to extremes to make an accurate comparison. “I’ll take a paper towel and fold it up, then press my tongue on it and push it up into my palate to soak up all the moisture in my mouth,” says Yianni. “Then I’ll immediately taste something to try and imitate the experience of eating at altitude.”
For a good example of the lengths we go to, check out our new Tyrrells ‘plane crisps’ next time you’re onboard our recently-launched Little Red domestic service. To ensure the mid-flight flavour meets both Tyrrells’ and our exacting standards, we use extra seasoning and miniature ‘daughter’ potatoes which are much sweeter than their larger counterparts, requiring the crisp fryers to be entirely recalibrated.
But cabin pressure and altitude are not the only impediments to serving up standout snacks in the sky. One of the other main considerations is the passage of time, which has a major impact on the quality of food and drink in the air, especially when it comes to our cocktails. Those lucky enough to find themselves seated at our Upper Class bar will know how seriously we take our mixology, and keeping fresh ingredients like mint and fruit in tip-top condition for the duration of a long-haul flight is a constant challenge. Not that this affects Yianni and Scott’s onboard tipple of choice – red wine and coke, a Basque-country classic otherwise known as a kalimotxo. “It’s a good choice for flying. The sugar in the coke slows down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream,” explains Scott. “It’s refreshing too and you don’t notice the effect of the alcohol as much as you would do with a straight glass of wine, especially if you alternate with a glass of water, which is the general rule.”
So what can we expect next from our partnership with the MEATliquor founders? Well, it’s a case of working within the constraints of a commercial airliner to see where we can push boundaries and where we have to accept limitations. Regulations require all airline food to be cooked on the ground before take-off, so the lack of kitchens with an open-flame grill obviously precludes the appearance of one of MEATliquor’s succulent Dead Hippie burgers any time soon. And even if it were possible, all the other hurdles would soon come into play. “A burger is at its moment of perfection the second you take it off the grill,” says Yianni. “Every minute after that it declines in quality, not to mention the logistical issues you’d face with things like fresh salad and mayonnaise.” But the pair are keen to explore other avenues, such as the use of dry heat to enable us to serve hot dogs onboard – an option we’re currently exploring.
And of course, one of the best ways to find inspiration and ideas for the future is to combine an onboard tasting session with an on-the-ground eating spree. So we packed Yianni and Scott off to New York with orders to put our cocktail menu to the test – both onboard and in the Clubhouse – and to stuff their faces with all the meaty bounty NYC has to offer, giving us the lowdown on where to eat in the Big Apple right now. Check back soon for more on our Heathrow Clubhouse’s Grey Goose Taste Studio and the pair’s take on Brooklyn’s craft brews and Manhattan’s meat shacks – all served up with a sneaky serving of breakfast fondue on the side…
To experience more of our exciting brand alliances partnerships, book your flight with Virgin Atlantic today.