Quails in or­bit

As­tro­nauts can now look for­ward to fine French cui­sine in space.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By LAU­RENT BANGUET

IT’S your 150th day in space, and life is start­ing to re­sem­ble the movie Ground­hog Day – a repet­i­tive daily rou­tine in­ter­spersed with tugs of long­ing for life back on Earth.

Then, all of a sud­den, things start to look up.

Mis­sion Con­trol has de­clared that to­day will be a “spe­cial day” and you can look for­ward to a lip-smack­ing, fin­ger-lickin’-good gourmet meal at the end of it. This is where France’s space chefs come in. In an ini­tia­tive backed by top-of-the-line cuisinier Alain Du­casse, a team of cooks de­sign and make “Spe­cial Event Meals” – SEMs – to en­liven the nu­tri­tious but of­ten dull freeze-dried diet of life in space.

About once a month, as the dis­tant Earth rolls slowly be­neath them, as­tro­nauts can feast on roasted quail, Bre­ton lob­ster, han­drea­red chicken from the Lan­des, casse­role of Bur­gundy beef cheek, Riviera-style sword­fish or duck breast in a ca­per sauce.

Dessert could be a le­mon cream cake, choco­late cake, or mille­feuille (lit­er­ally, “thou­san­dleaf”) puff pas­try with fruit and cream fill­ing.

As with al­most ev­ery­thing con­nected with space, pre­par­ing food to be con­sumed in zero grav­ity comes with a range of chal­lenges.

Rule No. 1 is safety, said Lionel Suchet, deputy head of France’s Toulouse Space Cen­tre, who launched the pro­gramme. Be­cause of a “no bac­te­ria” re­quire­ment, the food must be han­dled in an ul­tra-clean en­vi­ron­ment.

‘Cap­tain Had­dock’ dan­ger

Another po­ten­tial devil is tex­ture. In­gre­di­ents that pro­vide a pleas­ant feel in the mouth on Earth could be lethal in space, Suchet said.

“Food can’t be too dry, break­ing up into crumbs that as­tro­nauts can in­hale,” he said.

“At the same time, you can’t have it too liq­uid. If food is too runny, you get ‘ Cap­tain Had­dock Syn­drome’,” Suchet said.

This was a ref­er­ence to an episode in one of the Tintin car­toon books, where a char­ac­ter’s whisky rolls up dis­con­cert­ingly into a ball as their space­ship speeds to the Moon.

“Cap­tain Had­dock Syn­drome” may sound fun ... but the balls of liq­uid can cause short cir­cuits if they touch elec­tronic gear.

Then there is ease of use. The food must fit in ul­tra-light alu­minium tins that can be re­heated on an in­duc­tion cook­top.

And the as­tro­nauts must be able to con­sume the con­tents one-handed, us­ing a spoon. Any­thing with bits that are too big, too tiny, too fid­dly or need to be cut is a no-no.

France’s Na­tional Cen­tre of Space Stud­ies (CNES) has or­dered up to 2,000 in­di­vid­ual meals, from 25 recipes, for next year alone. They are cer­ti­fied by Nasa for use aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS).

He­naff, a small pate-mak­ing com­pany based at Poul­dreuzic, Brit­tany, does the cook­ing, us­ing a ster­ile cham­ber at its plant.

French culi­nary in­volve­ment in space dates back to 1993, when French as­tro­naut Jean-Pierre Haignere re­turned from a mis­sion aboard the Rus­sian space sta­tion Mir.

Ev­ery­thing went well, but the food was another mat­ter: day af­ter day of black bread, cold her­rings and tinned pla­s­ticky cheese ... For any French palate, a cos­mic night­mare.

In a rush of sym­pa­thy, Richard Filippi, a teacher at a restau­rant school in Souil­lac – ap­pro­pri­ately in the foodie heart­land of the Dor­dogne – con­tacted the CNES, of­fer­ing his help.

The meals proved an in­stant suc­cess. In 1997, when France was forced to can­cel a manned mis­sion to Mir, Rus­sia’s cos­mo­naut begged the CNES to send up the food any­way as they liked it so much.

“At this point, we dis­cov­ered that there was an im­por­tant is­sue at stake, not just in op­er­a­tional terms but also psy­cho­log­i­cally, for teams to meet for a good meal on spe­cial oc­ca­sions,” Suchet told AFP.

With Du­casse’s help, the menu ex­panded to top-of-the-range of­fer­ings. SEMs were born in 2004, and five years later made their first ap­pear­ance on the ISS.

The im­por­tance of fes­tive meals is in­flu­enc­ing prepa­ra­tions for manned mis­sions to Mars.

Bore­dom and ten­sions be­tween team mem­bers will be among the great­est ob­sta­cles on what is likely to be a round trip of two years in ex­treme con­fine­ment.

One idea is to have dishes that on “spe­cial days” pop out from se­cret com­part­ments to pro­vide crew wth a tasty, morale-boost­ing sur­prise. — AFP

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