Michelin-starred Italian chef Gianni Tarabini, from La Preséf in Lombardy, recounts that it was after the third or fourth day of his illness that he realised he could no longer distinguish flavours. “I only perceived bitterness, a taste similar to that of salsify. It was like that for about ten days,” he explains.
A distorted perception of flavours can make life complicated for a cook. Bitterness spearheaded the whole experience for Tarabini, even making the necessity of drinking water a chore. “I struggled to drink because water was more bitter than any other food or drink, probably because it has a neutral taste.”
Image: courtesy La Fiorida
Thomas Troisgros says he could taste the spectrum of flavours, but couldn't identify individual flavours. “Then when I decided to taste things, what was interesting was that I could tell it was sweet, salty, bitter, or acid or sour, but I couldn’t tell you if it was a strawberry or a grape," he says. Fortunately, as a trained chef, he was able to rely on his years of culinary experience and training in order to continue cooking, with some moral support. “I cooked for my girlfriend every day, salad and stuff like that, and every day she said the seasoning was right on the dot, on the money. I guess I can cook without my palate, but not everything, I guess.”
It isn't just chefs whose livelihoods are at risk when they lose their sense of taste or smell. Valeria Raimondi, editor in chief at Fine Dining Lovers, sums up her recent brush with Covid 19: “Losing taste was one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable experiences of my whole life. Food suddenly turned into textures and temperature only, even the strongest flavour or smell was reset to zero.”
For her, the physical experience of eating become alien, and instead of something pleasurable and life-affirming, it became an impersonal experience. “I could only feel something in my throat, the bitterness of a black coffee or the acidity of a lemon squeezed in my mouth,” she says. And it all happened so suddenly, just one day after having enjoyed a pizza.
“This experience reminded me of the key role of memory when it comes to food: for almost three weeks that I was without taste, I went on eating the foods I liked, avoiding everything I would have usually avoided,” says Raimondi. “Taste is such an instinctive sense, usually taken for granted, that it's hard to believe what it means to lose it.”
Both Raimondi and Troisgros were left reeling after they lost their sense of smell and taste out of the blue. Given that smell is the precursor to taste, it’s hard to talk about one without the other, with most sufferers often struggling to distinguish between the two. As much as 75–95% of what we think we taste, we actually smell, according to Oxford University professor, Charles Spence.
Spence recommends that chefs suffering from a loss of smell or taste stick with foods they remember or are familiar with, and remain in their comfort zone, working from memory. “When you lose smell it’s not just the enjoyment of food that you lose but also the emotional and social contact goes,” he says. While losing such fundamental senses is distressing, the emotional and psychological impact cannot be overstated.
“When you ask people which sense would you least like to lose, it’s always vision. But if you look at the incidents of suicide, it’s highest after smell,” says Spence. Singer Michael Hutchence, was said to be left 'floating in space' after losing his sense of smell following a street fight, and eventually committed suicide.
Smell is so linked to emotions that losing it can make life feel very one dimensional for suffers, with some describing the loss as 'like looking at the world from behind a pane of glass.' It's also more evocative than the loss of sight, as Spence explains: “When you lose sight you can imagine mental imagery. When smell goes most people don’t have much olfactory imagery or memory, so when it goes, they’re left with nothing. That’s why it’s so distressing”
Instead, food becomes emotionless fuel. Despite being hungry and craving foods that she remembered, Raimondi was unable to find any joy in eating. When a once favourite pumpkin risotto became a heap of hot grains and unidentifiable puree, she grew disillusioned. “That's why I then started eating a lot of bread, with the only aim to feel full. Losing the taste means losing all the pleasure related to food, leaving the need to feed yourself only."
Raimondi’s Covid experience coincided with Christmas, yet even nostalgic traditional family dishes failed to cheer her up. “Christmas day, my family left all the dishes we usually have to celebrate on the doormat: salmon toast, lasagne, roast beef, prosecco. I ate and drank with my eyes closed, somehow hoping that focusing on the memory of those specific foods would help me enjoy them. It didn't work. But it was worth trying.”
Conversely, Tarabini mentions the moment he was able to get the wow factor back from food: "Memory has registered tastes: polenta, bitto, pizzoccheri... When you say 'wow' while eating a dish, it is because the taste-memory lights up."
Smell is also integral in producing memories. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal have consistently explored the science of smell and taste, and their effects on our senses, emotions and memory in dishes at the Fat Duck.
Recently Jozef Youssef at Kitchen Theory worked on a project with professor Charles Spence, creating nostalgic-flavoured healthy ice-creams, like prawn cocktail and Heinz tomato soup, to stimulate the sensory losses experienced by the elderly. Around a third of over-70s functionally have no smell left, according to Spence. He says the research that might "be relevant to providing enhanced food experiences for the worryingly large number of those suffering from long Covid".
Broadening the dining experience via gastrophysics, and the use of sound and colour, can increase the enjoyment of a meal for those suffering smell or taste loss, says Spence, who used environmental cues to trigger nostalgia for his late mother suffering from Alzheimers and taste loss, like playing Vera Lynn records while she ate ice cream.
Increasing the social aspect of eating can also help, whether connecting online and cooking together, or meeting for zoom cocktails. Focusing less on the food and more on the company could help increase enjoyment in food, and improve the experience of eating for those suffering from anosmia or ageusia, according to Spence.
For those suffering from smell loss or distortion, there are some simple techniques to help re-train the nose. “Educate your senses on a daily basis,” advises Harold Mcgee, a leading expert on the science of food and cooking, who has spent 10 years researching the nose for his new book: Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells. “Step into the pantry and smell 10 different things, like pre-mixed curry powder, and try to pick out the individual spices." It's something Thomas Troisgros attempted to do daily during his smell loss. “Every day, I was trying things, opening sardines and tuna cans and smelling the really, really powerful stuff.”
For a more methodical approach, UK Charity AbScent offers a smell training kit, including four aromas to help train those suffering from smell or taste loss. Lemon and orange rind, nutmeg, clove, mint, eucalyptus, ground coffee, coconut and vanilla are other common aromas that work equally well. Charity website Fifth Sense is another good source of information on nose training.
“If the smell is gone, you can bring people’s attention to the other senses either in the food, with temperature or trigeminal stuff like chilli and pungency, maybe still there rather than relying on the taste buds,” says Spence. This is something Tarabini naturally gravitated towards when he started to cook very fatty, peppery, acidic or spicy foods to counteract the bitter flavours he was experiencing. “I remember that I often prepared arrabbiata pasta, with lots of tomato, garlic, oil and chilli,” he says.
A new cookbook has been developed by British chef Ryan Riley, the co-author of Taste & Flavour, giving emphasis to 'fresh-tasting' dishes, like a fruit salad dressed in yuzu, honey and vanilla, or tacos with shells made from pineapple, to help sufferers re-connect with food they find pleasurable.
The Road to Recovery
Most patients will recover their smell and taste after two or three weeks of contracting coronavirus. Unfortunately, one in ten people who lose their sense of smell will have persistent smell loss, which can last at least eight weeks or even many months say AbScent.
Recovery can even stall or even go backwards for a while, but the good news is that most people will recover their sense of smell eventually, although they may find some things don’t taste like they used to. A now-healthy Raimondi questions if life is completely back to normal yet. “For sure, my smell is not completely recovered, so my question is always the same: how can I be sure my taste is fully back?”
Meanwhile, Tarabini says he rejoiced when the bitterness left his palate and his life: "When I started to experience taste, my memory started, I started to eat a lot, and I even put on a few pounds.”
But for Thomas Troisgros, although he says he knew his sense of taste had returned when he could finally taste sardines, he thought perhaps something has changed. “I find stuff over-salty. I don't know if it’s a consequence of the disease or it’s just me right now."
“It's not all bad, though,” he jokes. “One positive thing was that all the bad smells were the last things to come back. So, I couldn’t smell garbage, and I couldn’t’ smell farts.”