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The Guardian view on taste, smell and Covid: getting back our appetite

Postat la Apr 28, 2021

“T his is the first meal I’ve cooked in a year that in no way tasted or smelt revolting,” a grateful reader wrote to Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke recently. While the praise might sound underwhelming, it was heartfelt: the British pair’s slim cookbook, Taste & Flavour, a free collection of recipes to help Covid patients enjoy food again, has won them gratitude around the globe.

An estimated 65% of coronavirus patients experience the loss or distortion of taste and smell, and 10% are left with long-term effects; for 3% it could be permanent. When many long Covid sufferers report persistent headaches, breathlessness and fatigue, the complaint might sound almost trivial; more curious than troubling. Yet the charity Abscent says that the 3.25 million people in the UK who develop smell loss – often after cancer treatment or head injuries – can experience isolation and depression. Medics and those with smell loss say it can be unexpectedly jarring and depressing, as if all the colour of the world has turned to grey. The especially unfortunate, like Riley and Duke’s correspondent, find that favourite flavours and scents, such as coffee, chocolate or garlic, do not vanish, but become disgusting to them – redolent of decay.

Much of what we think of as our sense of taste is in fact a sense of smell. Bad smells usually help to keep us healthy, warning us away from spoiled food; good ones awaken our appetites not only for food but for life. Some sufferers, like the food critic Tejal Rao, have turned to “smell training”, trying to re-accustom themselves to whiffs of cinnamon or the scent of bacon. Riley and Duke’s book draws on the expertise of Prof Barry Smith of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London, as well as their experience at Life Kitchen, the not-for-profit cookery school they founded for cancer patients after losing parents to the disease. Recipes such as veggie pineapple tacos and miso butter potatoes with green herb vinegar layer flavours are designed to stimulate the trigeminal nerve – which reacts to triggers such as mustard or mint – but are also made as visually appealing as possible. Good nutrition is essential to helping the sick recover. But so is pleasure.

In a flat, flavourless period of our lives, food has been one of the few easily available joys for most of us – hence the piling on of “pandemic pounds”. A chocolate biscuit or bowl of noodles has provided the lift we might otherwise get from seeing friends or catching a movie. (Those worst hit financially by the pandemic are denied even these small pleasures, of course – demand for aid from food banks has soared.) The longing for distinctiveness and novelty has sent many back to their cookbooks, or at least to Deliveroo. And even those of us with full olfactory powers might yearn for the precise, irreproducible flavour of lamb shank at that one favourite restaurant, a sister’s scones or a best friend’s pav bhaji, reflecting the social nature of eating. Good food is a human need, not only for our physical strength, but for our emotional wellbeing too.