Stephen Jardine: Making a meal of eating on the run

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT USED to be one of the perks at the end of a long, hard day in London. After battling to Heathrow on the underground and running all the way to the departure gate, your reward was to settle down with a beer and a hot meal on the last flight home.

Sometimes it was chicken, other times it was fish. The last time I made the journey it was a measly bag of pretzels.

In-flight catering has changed beyond all recognition in recent years. Food and cabin service used to be a point of difference that led to competition. In the current economic climate, price is all that matters.

Passengers want to spend as little as possible on their fares, so the airlines have ditched the frills.

The quality of what is on offer has also suffered with airlines resorting to whatever will appeal to as many people as possible. For £3.55, Ryanair offers a Snack Pack consisting of crackers, cheese, pate, mini Mars Bar and more. The more presumably being indigestion.

Marie Antoinette would have loved Air France in-flight catering. I lived in Paris for a few years and flew with the airline regularly. Even on short-haul fights, business class was a cocoon of wide leather seats, the finest champagne and the freshest seafood.

Through the curtain down the back, where I spent most of my time, it was a cup of coffee with powdered milk and a scowl if you dared ask for biscuits never mind cake.

The answer, of course, is to choose your food before you board your flight. Departure lounges now offer a much greater variety of outlets selling salads and sandwiches. The choice is bigger and it’s usually cheaper than onboard.

On the train to London last week, I ran out of time to stock up at the station, so was left to the mercy of the East Coast buffet car.

The good news is, that if the airlines have given up, the rail companies seem to be trying harder. The coffee was Fairtrade, the sandwiches were fresh and local artisan producers were much in evidence, ranging from Colliers Welsh cheddar, to cake from a National Trust property in Somerset.

They even served halloumi. I can hear the old British Rail union leaders reaching for their strike ballot at the very thought of it. Scottish produce was an omission from the menu but in these days of catering on the move declining, it was a very good effort.

And so to the buses. In Edinburgh hot food is banned and a very good idea that is too. No-one is going to starve if they are unable to consumer a cheeseburger and chips between Canonmills and The Mound.

We’ve yet to discover what role food will have on the Edinburgh trams. By the time they start, as a species we will have probably evolved to live off hydrogen so that’s once less thing to worry about.