During the summer of 1896, Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée prepared to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon. His equipment included a custom-made stove that dropped below the balloon basket, which would be lit with a string. “These precautions are taken to avoid the danger of having a fire too close to the balloon gas,” said the new zealand newspaper The shooting star explained at the time. If Andrée had had the foresight to position this machine above the gondola, his balloon may have stood out for reasons other than its infamous failure the following year, when it crashed and left Andrée and her team to perish in the Arctic.
It took more than a century for hot air balloon cuisine to reinvent itself, this time with greater success.
Creating haute cuisine in a hot air balloon is the dream come true of Dutch chef Angélique Schmeinck. After 25 years of restaurant experience (including 12 years at Michelin-starred De Kromme Dissel) and several cookbooks under her belt, she found herself wanting to venture into new territories.
Schmeinck had her “Eureka” moment in 2003 when she saw a hot air balloon and realized that “a hot air balloon is actually a huge, hot oven!” Excited about the opportunity to build her own restaurant from scratch, she called a hot air balloon company for help. Two weeks later, they hoisted a custom bag filled with fish and chicken to the crown of a balloon via pulleys. The flame at the base of the flask raised the temperature to 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius), an ideal level of heat for casseroles. When the ball landed an hour and a half later, Schmeinck removed the fish and the chicken. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw that it was perfectly cooked,” she says.
This successful trial was the starting point for CuliAir, the world’s first hot air balloon restaurant. Since her maiden voyage nearly two decades ago, Schmeinck has organized around 50 trips each year across the Netherlands. So how did she succeed where Andrée failed? Among the main advantages of his aerial kitchen are a cooking counter that hangs from the side of the balloon basket (and includes a camphor stove) and a pulley system attached to custom steel containers that allows Schmeinck to lift the food towards the flame of the balloon and lower it. this. His system must be efficient: On board, Schmeinck has an hour and a half to serve three dishes to 10 people. “Organization is the most important thing,” she says. Her kitchen is so well designed that Schmeinck says she can find things blind.
Guests receive a notification of where to meet just hours before takeoff. CuliAir uses 20 different take-off locations to accommodate the wide range of flight conditions. Weather can alter landing times or the balloon’s flight height, an especially important consideration given the balloon’s flame’s dual function as a furnace and engine. Higher altitudes require a higher flame, which means an increase in cooking temperature. Since the food Schmeinck cooks requires temperatures between 194 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit, she works with the balloon pilot to ensure course adjustments don’t affect a dish.
When guests arrive at the designated take-off meadow, Schmeinck serves them an appetizer, such as melon, goat cheese and dried capers, followed by champagne. Meanwhile, a ground crew sets up the large orange and white balloon and attached basket that seats up to 12 people. The basket rests on its side, allowing guests to rise and lie horizontally until the flame fills the balloon with enough heat to lift everything off the ground (and pull standing passengers). Once completely in the air, Schmeinck starts cooking.
The first course in heaven is usually a seafood cocktail. The natural, fresh ingredients can be prepared raw, simmered, or slow-cooked. This summer, Schmeinck served langoustines (a Norwegian lobster-like delicacy), fresh clams and lobster with passion fruit, lightly fermented yellow carrots and glasswort (a salt marsh plant that Schmeinck dubs sea”).
During the flight, Schmeinck serves wine and gives more information about his dishes. The standing room uniquely encourages interactions between the chef, pilot and other diners as the balloon glides over the countryside, taking in the views from a cruising altitude ranging from 500 to 2,500 feet. “Sometimes when the clouds are low, we can walk through them,” says Schmeinck. “It’s a bit hazy. Then we are above the clouds and see the sun shining. This moment is unforgettable. It’s amazing to me, after all these years.
Schmeinck’s second course arrives 45 minutes later: royal sea bass pulled from hanging steel containers and served in a 12-year-old bouillabaisse sauce alongside seasonal vegetables, like asparagus and artichoke. Schmeinck cooks them on the stove that hangs over the edge of the balloon’s basket with “a beautiful vadouvan oil,” a French spice blend that derives its ingredients from masala. While all other dishes and ingredients rotate seasonally, her sea bass is a staple. “It’s the best fish for balloon cooking because it has a bit more fat, which goes well with gentle, slow cooking,” says Schmeinck. This, added to the inimitable bouillabaisse sauce, makes it a pairing that reflects the flight in a hot air balloon: rich and intense, light and adventurous.
The third course tends towards poultry, although lamb made an appearance earlier this year. Schmeinck’s most recent menu includes duck confit cooked in elevated containers and then glazed in its own juices. She pairs it with summer mushrooms and a lightly fermented cauliflower and pumpkin salsa that she seasons with lemon, star anise and cardamom.
After serving the third course, Schmeinck cleans up as the pilot directs the ball to the ground. Landings can vary from smooth to bumpy. Back on dry land, live music greets guests as they enjoy dessert (a recent offering was a white chocolate and passion fruit mousse topped with a crunchy rainbow meringue, raspberry and basil). Sometimes Schmeinck even serenades the guests herself with a guitar.
Given the precision required for successful CuliAir travel, one has to ask: does anything ever go wrong? “The challenges are when we have to land earlier,” says Schmeinck. If the weather turns bad, the pilot will make a safety landing and the chef will serve the main course in the meadow. Another time in the early days of CuliAir, “the control [for the suspended cooking containers] did not come down. He was stuck in the balloon so we could only eat vegetables.
Sometimes the difficulties along the way aren’t even related to airfare or food: marriage proposals are common, but not always well received, Schmeinck says. And what happens in the ball doesn’t always stay in the ball, as was the case with a flying black towel she mistook for a bird. But overall, each trip provides an exhilarating experience. “The guests live a great adventure, so all the senses are very open,” she explains. “Food composition and flavor combinations should have the same adventurous character. It shouldn’t be boring or too soft. . . . It shouldn’t be too heavy, nor contain too much cream, but it should be as light, elegant and fresh as the balloon itself.
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