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Vegan baker Filitsa Gray was eating dairy-free buttercream when it happened. One afternoon in March, her sense of taste and smell vanished. At first she thought it was strange; by her own admission her nose had been so sensitive she could smell things through walls, but then, when fatigue set in, it dawned on her that there might be a bigger problem.
After five years in the vegan cakes business, Covid-19 struck; she couldn’t taste or smell anything for months. After a negative test, her symptoms progressed, and parosmia – a distorted sense of smell – hit in July. Chickpeas began to taste like chargrilled fish skins, water took on a tinge of diluted bleach, porridge was like eating plastic carrier bags and chocolate began to smell like faeces. Despite this, her business had to keep functioning.
“I was still baking. I was still making cakes and carrying on as normal. Even now I’m quite embarrassed to say, ‘Oh, look, this is what’s happened to me.’ Because I kind of don’t want people to know,” says Gray.
Her business operates through Instagram from her home in London, sending out cakes made to order and boxes filled with bespoke products. It has gained a steady following and roster of celebrity clients. She estimates she has sent out nearly 100 different products since initially contracting the virus. Her boyfriend, who quickly recovered his smell and taste after getting Covid-19 at the same time, acts as an expert taster and quality controller.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried in the kitchen, just out of sheer frustration. If nobody is here to taste the cake in front of me, I’m stuck. You really feel just total despair. You go ‘should I just leave it,’ and you can’t because you’re right in the middle of something.”
The hospitality industry has been forced into near-total shutdown for the best part of a year. When lockdowns were eased in the UK, those working in restaurants, markets and shops were ostensibly front-line workers – at a high risk of contracting the virus for simply doing their jobs. Alongside the stress of this, people in the food industry who rely on their prized palates have had to face up to the possibility that losing their sense of smell could spell the end of their career.
Loss of smell was not initially on the checklist of symptoms released by the UK government for identifying the virus, but it has gradually become apparent that it is one of the most common. There is now hard evidence that more than half of patients with Covid-19 experience noticeable loss of smell or taste (medically known as anosmia or hypogeusia). While two-thirds recover from this within six to eight weeks, many are left without noticeable improvements months on. Still, due to the fact we are only about a year on from the genesis of those symptoms, not much is known of the potential lasting effects.Anxiety about this ailment is creeping into wine and fine dining. In the wine industry, losing your sense of smell is so taboo that several sommeliers interviewed for this piece did not want to be identified. One sommelier at a top London restaurant likened the symptoms to a star athlete injuring their anterior cruciate ligament – a knee injury used to routinely put an end to professional athletes’ careers. They warned that those with a compromised sense of smell could be branded as “damaged goods” or unfit for work in the eyes of the profession. Others have questioned whether it could be a factor in future hiring decisions. One well-known former wine buyer for high-end restaurants, who is still suffering from parosmia six months on, said they aren’t able to function correctly in the business because they have “lost the way to detect nuance in wine”. They have stopped buying expensive wines for their own enjoyment as a result.
In March, Federica Zanghirella, vice president of the UK Sommelier Association lost and subsequently regained her full sense of smell in a matter of months. She runs a wine tasting course with the association, so her career revolves around teaching others how to recognise aromas and tastes in wine.
“Because I’ve been through that, I know how bad it is. You really don’t experience any tastes or smells for a long time,” she says. “If you’re working in a restaurant it would be difficult to admit it had happened to you, because you are not fit for service in a way.”
Tim Nicholls, a former wine trader, had a similar experience. The grandson of the owner of a wine company, wine runs in Nicholls’ blood. He has spent virtually all of his adult life working in the trade, initially training at Christie’s auction house with Master of Wine, Michael Broadbent. Nicholls’ sense of taste vanished in May while eating lunch that his wife had made for him, and has not yet fully recovered.
“It’s not a good thing – if I was still in the wine trade I would be extremely worried,” Nicholls says. “My concern is now that I’m relying on memory for things. It’s a bit like Beethoven; he composed all this wonderful music but couldn’t hear what he composed. I wouldn’t want to recommend anything to anyone at the moment.”
Nicholls has found the problem depressing, particularly over Christmas. “I never dreamt that I’d be robbed of my taste and smell,” he says.
The ability to smell is intrinsically connected to taste, and is a neurological process that we still don’t fully understand. The “tongue map”, a commonly-held understanding of the way taste works, was recently proven to be misleading. Alongside this, full explanations of the mechanisms behind the way the body processes smells have also eluded scientists. Covid-induced smell loss was initially labelled a “mystery”.
Researchers and medics now think smell loss happens due to the virus damaging what they call the supporting cells of the olfactory epithelium – the area high in the nose where we detect odours. This area contains both the nerve cells, and supporting cells that make the nose work. If damaged by a virus, these have to regenerate and forge new connections to the brain. Some think that parosmia is an indication of nerve cells healing and making new connections to the brain.
Sensory loss also has a well-documented impact on mental health. “It’s very underestimated,” says Irfan Syed, a consultant ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon, who runs the London Smell Clinic at London ENT Surgeons. “If you were to lose your sight or your hearing it’s automatically computed as a massive disability, but when you say you’ve lost your sense of smell, the sympathy’s not necessarily there. Unless you’ve been through that you don’t really understand the full ramifications of that on your quality of life.”
Specialism in smell loss used to be – by Syed’s own admission – a niche interest. But now the specialist has seen the numbers of patients passing through his clinic balloon. He says that many of his patients face an emotional toll, citing higher incidences of anxiety and depression. Findings from a questionnaire conducted by the charity Fifth Sense surveying people with olfactory disorders on their mental health, showed that 57 per cent of 496 people reported that the limitations on their senses left them feeling isolated. More than half said it left them feeling depressed or anxious. The survey also found that women appear to have significantly more issues than men in terms of social and domestic dysfunction relating to olfactory loss.
Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, and the practitioner that initially pushed for smell loss to be listed as a symptom of coronavirus in the UK, also notes the potential knock to patients’ mental health. “People struggle to explain what’s happening to friends and family, sometimes they struggle to find the right support from GPs and ENT surgeons,” she says. “They find that doctors can be dismissive and don’t understand what an impact it has.”
“Because it’s a disability you can’t see, patients start to question whether it’s actually real. To understand people are going through the same thing is really important,” she continues.
While researchers across the world continue to try to understand the long-term effects of Covid-19, many will have to learn to live with it. Hopkins says that chefs she has had as patients have found other ways to get back to cooking.
“Their food changes, they rely on textures,” she says, citing the origin story of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When the pair first started to experiment with flavours, Ben – who suffered from congenital loss of his sense of smell – relied heavily on texture to enjoy food. Now, from lumps of cookie dough to big chunks of chocolate, recipes incorporate a textural element.
As for people looking for answers, sufferers have flocked to Facebook groups and online communities to share experiences. UK charity AbScent’s Covid-19 facebook group has grown exponentially since it launched. Members talk recipe tips, ways to deal with parosmia and some tell more optimistic stories of recovery. Originally started in March last year, it now has more than twenty thousand members. There are also several other equivalent groups which also have thousands of people contributing. The charity, a champion of smell training, has also run forums and support groups.
Gray has used the groups for support and connected with other people in the vegan community to try to help them find recipes that work with the condition. “I’ve just learnt to keep focusing on what’s possible and what I can do. If you fix up, you can get stuff done – it’s a long haul thing. You have to accept it’s not going away overnight,” she says.
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