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TRENDING SCIENCE: Out of this world! Food in space has come a long way

The famed French cuisine is travelling in orbit.

Fundamental Research

Forget about traditional space food for astronauts. It’s time to make room for lobster, beef bourguignon, cod with black rice, potato cakes with wild mushrooms and almond tarts with caramelised pears. These are the culinary delights French astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be enjoying aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He’s the first European to blast off on SpaceX’s rocket and capsule system. He’ll spend part of his 6-month stay leading the ISS during scientific experiments involving human research, biology, and material and environmental sciences.

Never leave your French food behind

The French remain steadfastly faithful to good food, and the European Space Agency’s Pesquet is no exception. So why not indulge in the famous cuisine while in orbit? “There’s a lot of expectations when you send a Frenchman into space,” he commented. “I’m a terrible cook myself, but it’s OK if people are doing it for me.” Pesquet and the crew will feast on delicacies prepared by three separate French culinary institutions. “Obviously, all my colleagues are expecting good food.” The servings won’t be on the daily menu, they are reserved for special occasions like birthdays. Savouring these meals would not have been possible without Raphaël Haumont, a physical chemistry professor at Paris-Saclay University, and Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx. The two had prepared some dishes for Pesquet back in 2016 when he took his first trip to the ISS. The French airline catering company Servair is also joining in the preparation. “I’ve enjoyed their food for a long time,” he added. All the food is prepared by hand.

Innovative solutions for space food

Serving food in space comes with several challenges because it needs to be adapted to the environment while retaining as much of the flavour and texture as possible. It’s mostly freeze-dried and water is extracted to decrease the size and volume. The food must undergo a meticulous cooking procedure to guarantee that it’s edible several months later. The texture has to be just right to prevent it from floating around. Most of the food has to be heated to 140 °C for about 60 minutes. “Can you imagine a cake or a piece of chicken or something like that on Earth?” noted Dr Haumont. “More than an hour of cooking at 140 destroyed the structure. So, we have to rework the cooking techniques.” Alcohol is also no-no. So what did the culinary team do with the alcohol that accompanies the mushroom sauce? Marx kept the alcohol in, but extracted it through a spinning evaporator without removing the flavour. A nuclear magnetic resonance instrument was used to make sure that the sauce was free of alcohol. Because of the physics involved, preparing and serving food in space will never resemble that of Earth. However, that won’t keep both scientists and chefs from making the gastronomic experience the best it can be. After all, who knows what new culinary adventures await when humans will be cooking and growing crops on future missions to faraway places like Mars?

Keywords

food, space, French food, astronaut, culinary, cooking, International Space Station, European Space Agency