Monday, June 30, 2008

The En Route En-Cas

As I try frantically to take advantage of Europe's geographical compactness during my last few weeks here, I've been doing a lot of traveling.  My time spent in transit has included encounters with plane and train food—which has made me realize how much better travel snacks are in Europe than in the U.S.

On my flight to Berlin I was reminded of my all-time favorite complimentary airline snack, the Lufthansa cheese sandwich.  Served in a wax paper sleeve, the sandwich consists of a pillowy roll spread with butter (or maybe margarine, but who cares?) and cradling thick slices of hard white cheese—maybe comtĂ©; I’ve never asked.  I've heard horror stories about Lufthansa sandwiches served frozen solid, but the sandwiches I've had have always been pleasantly cool and dry, the bread having lost a bit of moistness in the refrigerator.  The Lufthansa sandwich (which also comes in turkey), served with a miniature chocolate bar and a cup of coffee or tea, is perfectly-portioned and palatable any time of day—I’ve never regretted eating one.  I’m generally wary of brand loyalty, but if I were to base my choice of airline solely on the free food it serves, I would go with Lufthansa every time.

I had another travel food experience this past weekend when I took the Thalys from Gare du Nord to Brussels for a day trip.  I'm not in the habit of traveling first class, but an upgrade cost only €1.50 each way when I was booking my ticket, so I decided to take the plunge.  The en-cas served on the morning train—completely unnecessary, as the ride lasts only an hour and fifteen minutes—well exceeded my business-class standards for travel food.  My little tray held a bowl of peach slices (undoubtedly canned) with fresh blueberries and a sprinkle of something leafy that might have been thyme; a sandwich of egg, tomato, and caramelized onions on a sunflower seed roll that fit in the palm of my hand; and a slice of a tart made with indeterminate stone fruit on cold, moist puff pastry.  

Outside of context, these snacks would be unimpressive at best,  unacceptable at worst.  They're mass produced, previously refrigerated or frozen, and not terribly flavorful.  They're a way for airlines and rail companies to justify slightly higher ticket prices, and a way for passengers to pass the time.  I know this, but I'm still thrilled. 

All my life, the paragon of travel food, as far as I could tell, was the Southwest Airlines snack box containing preservatives, additives, and empty calories in various guises:  cheese crackers, jelled fruit snacks, chocolate sandwich cookies.  I’ve never been the type to turn down food that is offered to me, so in spite of my better judgment, I always ate the travel snacks, and it always made me feel rotten.  If the snack box falls victim to airlines’ attempts to cut costs, I say good riddance.

I have never seen anything resembling a snack box in Europe on a plane, on a train, or elsewhere.  The American concept of "snack" hasn't really caught on in Europe.  A European travel snack is miniature meal, made out of things that, as Michael Pollan would say, your grandmother would recognize as food:  bread, cheese, fruit.  And—as an indication of how pathetically America’s food system has lowered my expectations—a  snack made out of real food feels like a revelation.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Imagine if Picard took over travel food.