I have always relied on the kindness of others. So when a dear friend offered to use some of his airline points to fly me to and from London this summer, I very gratefully accepted. My gratitude knew no bounds when I found out the tickets were first class. “There were no other seats on the days you wanted,” explained my benefactor. Lucky me.
In the normal course of life, regular travellers see little of their first-class companions. They have their own check-in desks and lounges. The impatient line-ups at the departure gate must step aside to give them priority. They turn left, not right, as they enter the plane and are gone, protected from the vulgar gaze by curtains, vigilant attendants and the innate sense of social propriety that beats fiercely in the hearts of all who choose to fly British Airways.
So, what’s it like in that far forward cabin? My dears, all is comfort and light. On the Boeing 777 that flew me home there are only a dozen or so first-class seats – though seat is the wrong word: it’s more like a space-age chaise longue that turns, miraculously, into a bed over six feet long at the touch of a button ( pillows, sheets and a duvet are in the overhead locker). There is shelf space for books or in this case the magazines I took from Heathrow’s first-class lounge – publications devoted to yachting, power boats, polo and gossip. The kind attendant brings a little parcel of cosmetics, some socks and slippers and a pair of black pyjamas sealed in a bag. One has only to whisper “Champagne” and a flute of Laurent-Perrier Brut Millésimé 2000 appears, the vintage chosen by Jancis Robinson herself. I have three windows through which to look (the Atlantic a plumbago blue, its surface textured like the skin on a mug of hot milk) but the in-flight entertainment lets the side down – only a dozen banal American films to choose from and a tiny screen the size of a wallet on which to watch them.
Which lets me concentrate more on lunch. The menu reads well and I’m tempted by the char-grilled sirloin of Herefordhsire beef, if only to see how they can reheat that in an aeroplane galley without destroying its texture. Instead I settle for fish, starting with the Loch Fyne smoked salmon. It has been cut into small pieces and briefly marinated in lemon and lime juice before being lightly pressed into a tian. There’s a suggestion of onion but no binding agent to turn it into a tartare and the flavour is remarkably pure and simple, lifted nicely by a wreath of amaranth seedlings and a subtle lime crème fraîche. The attendant offers a good selection of breads, all warm and soft, light and moist, nothing at all like the clammy lump of putty we are used to from other flights in steerage.
My main course is a trio of fish, each served hot and though they are cooked through and slightly crusted someone has figured out how to keep them juicy. The little cross-cut cutlet of salmon has a delicious flavour and a small salad of watercress, sorrel and crunchy, lightly pickled fennel to keep it company; the fluffy knob of monkfish comes with a warm orange and thyme cream like a hollandaise sauce that’s been on holiday somewhere exotic; the little fillet of gilt-head bream has a tangy, slightly piquant salsa of fire-roasted red pepper. A discreet amount of mashed potato is also present on the plate, presumably to mop up the precious sauces. A glass of complex, peachy, citrussy Catena Chardonnay from Mendoza is a fine accompaniment.
Dessert? Peach melba with toasted almonds, perhaps, or dark chocolate fondant with almond brittle and white chocolate ice cream? I think not… Some cheese then – a wedge of young, fresh Cropwell Bishop Stilton, some mild Cornish goat’s milk Gevrik, delectably creamy Gubbeen and a piece of decent Camembert lest the French feel neglected. And with that, not the port but a glorious Australian sticky from D’Arenberg called The Noble Mud Pie 2008, a botrytis-affected Viognier with a dash of Pinot Gris and Marsanne that is all tangy pear, honey and ginger.
Later there will be a proper tea with dainty sandwiches, scones and strawberry jam and clotted cream but for now I will settle back and simply enjoy the old-fashioned experience of being able to stretch out my legs on an aeroplane. That space, as much as the fine food and drink, is the luxury that travelling first class brings – but both are trumped by something I realize only halfway through the flight. Thanks to the angle of this ever-so-comfortable seat, I can’t see any of the other passengers without making an effort. And they can’t really see me. The secret joy of the elite traveller is the measure of privacy he can buy, even in an aeroplane filled to capacity. I doubt I will ever fly first class again in my life. At least I now know what I’m missing.