By Marc Warde

Ambient foods with a long shelf-life can help airlines cut waste and increase choice but do they really have a place in our foodie focused world asks Marc Warde

Ambient food has an image problem. Think of it and you probably think of something gloopy and full of preservatives; army rations or dried space food. Look at the long shelf life and you feel sure it can’t be good for you.

If you grew up in the 1970s you might think of Dream Topping (a sweet, vanilla synthetic cream I loved as a child), Fray Bentos pies (in a tin and still going strong) or Golden Wonder Pot Noodles (which my friend and I thought they were just fantastic). More recently at WTCE I tried an ambient cooked breakfast which was enough to put me off ambient dining for good. The thought of it still makes me gag (eggs should always be fresh and the mushrooms looked like slugs) but this month I decided to take another look.

Perception overhaul

I visited Foodcase International in the Netherlands, specialists in ambient catering, and discovered that if you choose the right products, ambient really can be good. My snobby prejudice against long-life food has been somewhat overhauled by the visit and whilst I still think some foods just don’t do well in the sterilisation process (the very term sounds more medical than culinary), some foods certainly do survive successfully and to my surprise are pretty good, certainly better than some food currently onboard and claiming to be fresh!

Most budget carriers now board long-life snacks including tapas boxes which work really well, as those items are inherently preserved. There are also now lots of long-life biscuits, breadsticks, muffins, cheeses and sweet snacks, a veritable pick-and-mix of good taste, style and costings for airlines. There are also loads of really good hot options.

In praise of ambient

Airlines waste a phenomenal amount of food but loading ambient products allows them to offer and store more onboard. Many low cost operators have a range which is almost entirely ambient – although they haven’t necessarily chosen the products that perform best regenerated from ambient. High-end operators have ambient food onboard from noodle pots to confit duck and more besides, and there are in fact some surprisingly fancy options.

Wilbert De Louw, the mastermind and founder of Foodcase International, is a specialist in ambient food production and creating long-life solutions for the travel industry. He says the products that perform best are those that also work sous vide or cooked with sauce, while dry meat or proteins are not so successful. Preserved meats like chorizo and salami, are perfect and despite the ghastly little pots many airlines offer, hummus can also be superb. The trick is to choose the right products and work with the right suppliers – those which have foods and meals that taste great and just happen to be long-life too.

It is completely possible with a little imagination to create a menu of great tasting food, snacks, noodles and interesting meals somewhat more exciting than my 1970s Pot Noodle that really work, stop wastage and mean there is something always available for passengers. Airlines might also re-think back catering in this way as some of the meals are every bit as good, perhaps even better, than their frozen counterparts.

Canned food in the UK is having a renaissance and there are even a few new canned food cookbooks. Retailers are canning ever more exotic ingredients and new long-life options and formats are emerging as food technology evolves.

Beyond the tapas I tried at Foodcase, hummus from Mazete gets my thumbs up and Mr Lees instant noodles are great. Other companies working to broaden the options include Gastro Worldwide, En Route, and of course LSG Group which launched its Evertaste ambient brand last year. Delyse is even creating long-life salads.

So while the very idea of ambient has left a bad taste in my mouth for years, I do have to admit it has certainly moved on. If you haven’t tried it for a while, it might be time to think again.
Happy long-life munching all.