16 August 2011

The Orzo Crisis at Air France

Follow the money: Who’s paying Air France to serve so much orzo?

When I first began flying Air France, the airline was still entirely state-owned, and setting aside the political and economic implications of privatization, and the cutbacks in service that have affected every company in the business lately, I feel the difference most keenly whenever the flight attendants come around with supper. Frankly, I suspect foul play.

After all, one can easily excuse the airline’s saving money by serving orzo — slippery little seed-shaped pieces of pasta — here or there. But to serve it constantly, both as a starter (“orzo salad”) and as a side dish to the main course, at the same meal, suggests that the fix is in, and the supplier must be somebody’s nephew.

Orzo isn’t a vegetable (and neither is anything else in the “salad”), and it isn’t French, either. Back in the day, Air France seized the opportunity to show off, and to share with travelers some of the best of French cuisine and wine, or at least to hint at the possibilities. Nowadays, the company seems to be throwing anything it finds at the passengers — and what it finds is orzo.

On my first flights, Air France treated me as if I were a passenger on an ocean liner in the Golden Age. Upon boarding, I was served a glass of champagne. After takeoff, the attendants came around with a cocktail cart, carrying more champagne, and other French wines, as well as the more usual beverages. The attendants also handed out printed menus, detailing the food that would be served at dinner.

After a brief interval, the attendants came around again with the promised meal, and more champagne, if you wanted it. The quality of the food wasn’t anything near what you’d find in a restaurant in France, but it was varied, tasty, and vastly superior to what you’d find in economy class on any other airline.

And the menus themselves were a marvel. I kept the first ones: printed on slick paper, about 5 inches by 7 inches, with a full-color illustration of vegetables from an old Vilmorin seed catalogue on the cover. Some day I’ll frame them and hang them in my kitchen.

On the Concorde, we got truffle omelettes.
I don’t expect comparable treatment in economy class, however.

In recent years, Air France eliminated the complimentary champagne upon boarding, and the size of the menu shrank to a small card. Then the cocktail service was eliminated, and now there’s no more menu, either: the attendants simply inquire whether we want one of two options. Even the wine has shrunk, from a standard mini-bottle (containing enough for a couple of small glasses) to something that resembles a test tube and barely has room for a label. So much for promoting the great wines of France.

It was a shock, when the Orzo Era began, to discover that, following the famous orzo salad, orzo was also served with the main course. If French cuisine stands for anything, it is variety, and serving the same thing twice in one meal is anathema.

It’s easy to see why orzo would hold some appeal for the caterers on Air France, since it’s so resilient. Unlike fresh vegetables, it won’t spoil, and unlike larger pasta, it won’t dry out quickly. And unlike smaller pasta, such as couscous, it’s less likely to spill everywhere.

But couscous would at least be the sort of food one can find in France: some French people of my acquaintance don’t even know what orzo is, and I’ve never seen it in any restaurant or kitchen here. (I have found it on grocery shelves, however.)

Along with the rise of orzo has come a decline in the rest of the cooking. On my most recent flight, I had a choice of beef or pasta. Although (somewhat to my surprise) the main-course pasta in question did not consist of more orzo, it was nevertheless pasta — that is, exactly the same thing that we’d been served for a starter.

The beef was no prize, however: a tough, tepid, unidentified stew entirely lacking in vegetables but served with a gelid lump of mashed potato, quite possibly of the “instant” variety. Americans who flew in the 1960s and ’70s — or who ate frozen TV dinners in the same period — would recognize this dish immediately.

At least there’s been an effort to make the orzo salad more interesting. When I first encountered it, it was bland, mixed with a few stray pieces of carrot. Now it’s been mixed with curry and a few raisins, so at least there’s some flavor.

Other airlines have responded to recent economic crises by cutting back on catering, of course, but it’s to be noted that these days even the Americans do a better job on transatlantic flights: Continental’s food is superior to that of Air France. Given the justifiable pride that the French take in their cooking, that’s a scandal.

There is this consolation, however: because it is so difficult to get a truly bad meal in France, the traveler is guaranteed to eat better, wherever she goes upon arrival.

However, if the traveler so desires, she can make her own orzo at home.


Kara said...

This takes me back to my travels back and forth from Ukraine in the mid 1990s. I could not eat any of the food, being a vegetarian, but judging from the smells of the mystery meat that filled the cabin I did not miss much. I also do not remember much, either, as the drinks they handed out in little bottles were all pale, potent and capable of stripping paint. Each passenger past puberty got four of them at a time. With a mineral water chaser. Absolutely deadly.

Nan said...

Love how the decline of the French Empire can be summed up by orzo! Living in France for 10 years, I couldn't always afford the airfare of the indisputably superior Air France. My fall-back choice was always Air Pakistan; not only was flight much cheaper but the food was always delightfully spicy and fragrant. "Fly for the Food." Could be an airline tagline...