A WOMAN I KNOW never eats in the jet stream. She is French and cooks sublimely herself. Her argument is she cannot swallow food that is less than the best. You have heard all the jokes about airline food - about tough steak, prison mush and plastic chicken. Since the days of woven basket chairs in prop-driven clippers, airline food has garnered bad press. So journalists - including your correspondent - are constantly asked to say nice things about what is served in the air just to get a bit of reverse spin going. Well, I for one am delighted to. The truth is I am always surprised by how good dishes are on-board the world's airlines, bearing in mind the difficulties of preparing and serving food at 40,000 feet. Of course, no one in the galley is peeling potatoes or balling melons. No steaks are fried mid-air (you simply cannot have naked flames inside aircraft). So let us understand that, for reasons of safety and convenience, what you eat in the jet stream has been cooked in an enormous kitchen on the ground at or near an airport. What cabin staff do is simply reheat it, using sophisticated ovens. So the choice of dishes is always surprising. In June, for instance, in Cathay Pacific business class on some routes, you could choose for main course from beef fillet, steamed snapper and a classic Indian butter chicken. But not just steak, fish and chook. This beef was served with a jus and polenta enhanced with cheese. The snapper came with black beans and soy sauce, and the chicken was partnered by steamed rice, spicy cauliflower and green peas. But the dinner started with drinks of your choice, including the usual spirits, champagne, two table white wines and two reds. Accompanying your palate-arouser was a classic version of stuffed lettuce leaf - this time a very tasty savoury mince of beef, soy and sweet flavours boosted with small mushroom shavings. And it was served in a crisp inner leaf of a cos lettuce. Cathay plies you with heavy fabric in the pointy end. There is a blue-grey cloth over your tray-table and a blue-green one over the trays on which your food arrives. Big white napkins are for your lips, and they clip to your shirt with a natty little purple clothes peg. Salads are difficult thousands of metres in the air - they do not appreciate the dryness of altitude and tend to wilt. Such was the case with a small salad of endive, spiky lettuce and halves of pygmy tomato. It accompanied a plate of other cold elements, including pickled mushrooms, a large ribbon of roasted red pepper, half a small artichoke heart and, the star of the show, a cross-section of fine, if a little dry, hot-smoked salmon. In a small, sealed plastic tub was a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. As a promotion, a 10ml bottle of a similar mix also accompanied. Balsamic vinegar is a bully of the kitchen, and I use it with care. But both dressings were well-balanced and good. Then came the mains. My sizeable chunk of snapper was flavoursome and succulent. Covered with a kind of paste, mainly of black bean, it was somewhat obscured by its cloak, both visually and in a taste sense. Steamed rice and slivers of vegetables - baby corn, red and yellow capsicums and greens - were plate partners. Cathay does the very old-fashioned thing of offering port with cheese, which came next. I tried this wonderful alcoholic juice only because it was a Dow's late-bottled vintage from 1997. Let us not kid ourselves that Australia can make cheese as well as the real, raw-milk sublime curds of France. And I was flying out of Australia. It cannot, and a blue, a cheddar and a brie were okay but not brilliant. I have been flying a long time, but I have noticed recently that Cathay Business Class is pushing through the service of meals at a faster cadence. It is my view (and I think it would be shared by many other business-class passengers) that those who pay the fares - and not cabin crew - should be the ones to dictate how fast or slow a meal is enjoyed. A score? Bearing in mind the difficulties of both cooking for and serving diners in mid-air, 14 out of 20.