The secret of astronaut nutrition, says Heston Blumenthal, is keeping the astronauts happy with a very British combination of tea and bacon sandwiches.
Halfway through his six months on the International Space Station, Tim Peake has completed his first spacewalk, tweeted Lincolnshire schoolchildren, bumped into weightless cosmonauts – and donned his dinner jacket for a Michelin-quality meal.
Astronauts before him have been sustained on freeze-dried, vacuum-packed, tasteless meals concocted by scientists. Peake has had his meals specially created by Michelin-festooned restaurateur and food scientist Blumenthal. Blumenthal has spent the past two years preparing a feast for Peake – from sausage sizzle and Thai red curry to apple crumble and Key lime pie – in partnership with the European Space Agency. The chef ’s philosophy behind the meals has been to come up with seven morale-boosting dishes designed to stimulate Peake’s memories of home as well as his taste buds. Because despite orbiting 220 miles above Earth, everybody misses their home comforts, and what could lift the spirits more than a hot cup of tea and a bacon sandwich?
Why a bacon sandwich?
It’s what many Brits miss most when we’re away from home. If we’re to visit Mars, we need to think of food for astronauts as more than fuel, we have to understand it’s a mood-changer. This was a wonderful opportunity to see the power of food to connect with our memories. That’s what I tried with Tim – to give him food that would link him with Earth.
Is this your greatest triumph?
Yes, I’m proud of that, of bringing that very British taste to Tim as he goes round Earth hundreds of times a day. It was supposed to be a treat for later, but he had it the first day!
It must be the most expensive bacon sandwich in the world! Do you know what it costs to send a tin of your food up there?
I heard the fuel cost alone was a couple of million pounds. When I saw the rocket docking at the Space Station I thought, “All those millions and billions of pounds over the years, and all those people that work so hard, and all that modern technology and advancement, and this rocket is taking cans of my food into space!”
Professionally, what are the main challenges of an orbital meal?
Without gravity the way the fluids in your body behave changes and it can put pressure on your sinuses. This, in turn, affects your sense of smell and taste. That’s why astronauts like spicy foods and I made sure there was a curry in Tim’s selection.
And of course it can’t be past its sell-by date. A bad tummy would be unfortunate?
Oh, it would be terrible. Because the air has to be so clean. Also there’s no hospital – if somebody was really ill up there, what would happen? That’s why they often take big commercial brands of biscuits and chocolates because they know the production process they have been through.
Why did you opt for tins over other space food packaging options like pouches?
I realised early in the process of development that the dishes I wanted to do would only work in tins. That’s partly safety – you tin something leave it for a period of time and then test it to be sure there’s nothing bad in there. But it was also about the texture and the taste, there was just no other way to do a bacon sandwich.
What about a glass of wine? The Russians used to send pouches of vodka up…
I heard that as well! But I never asked about alcohol, not even a glass of wine. But you just can’t imagine them having a drink with all of the things that they have to do day and night. They even sleep standing up in sleeping bags.
What would you miss if you were in space?
It would be tea from a cup and an ordinary sandwich. When we were filming in Munich, we sent out for sandwiches and these massive great big baguettes came back. In space I wouldn’t want one of those gastronomic deli sandwiches with pesto and aubergine, pine nuts and raisins. I’d have ham and cheese.
Has it been odd watching Tim in space?
The most strange, wonderful, powerful and nerve-racking thing was when we both tried the food together over the video link when he was up there and I was at the European Space Station. Tim really liked the salmon meal we made. He had a very happy memory of going on a canoeing and salmon fishing trip when he was young and we re-created that in a tin. I had a lump in my throat. It really hit me and I wasn’t even up in space, plucked away from my family. I was here.
Does your work with Tim have implications for us earthlings?
I would like us all to eat with that kind of mindfulness. If food can help your psychological wellbeing in space, then it can do the same here. You could take a raisin and just roll it in your fingers and think about it. Or enjoy a biscuit. It’s only a biscuit, but think about the taste and the memories it evokes.
When did Tim last call?
I got an email from him – an email from space! That’s something that you never think will happen. One Italian astronaut told me he got a tax bill and replied, “Sorry, I’m out of the planet for a while.”