Cooking a curry recipe from the restaurant group Dishoom’s cookbook on the first night of a Norfolk holiday last July, Barney Child noticed something odd. ‘The recipe calls for huge amounts of garlic, like crazy amounts. But the smell of the garlic was completely weird. I thought it must be old garlic or, maybe because I’d cut so much up, I’d freaked my brain out. Then the next morning I made an espresso and it smelled very, very strange – a kind of chemical smell that’s hard to describe.’
Child (not his real name) is a restaurant wine buyer who lives by his sense of smell, and not just because it’s how he pays the bills. ‘I get so much joy from thinking about food, it’s a whole day looking at recipes, thinking about what do we eat tonight.’
He caught Covid-19 in the first half of March 2020 and lost his sense of smell completely. Three weeks later, over a slice of Comté cheese, it began to return, patchily at first, but after a week, ‘I thought I was over it; my sense of smell was almost completely back’.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t: a couple of months later, the parosmia struck.
A pervasive problem
If anosmia (loss of smell) was part of the new vocabulary the world learned in the first phase of the pandemic, parosmia (smell distortion) followed soon after. While anosmics live in an olfactory blackout, parosmics may have some normal smell function, but certain odours trigger the ‘wrong’ smell, leaving some people unable to eat because their dinner reeks like sewage or petrol.
Along with other smell disturbances such as hyposmia (a reduced ability to smell), the condition has become widespread over the last year. Chrissi Kelly, who lost her sense of smell in 2012 and founded AbScent to support and inform fellow sufferers, has some numbers.
‘We know that around 60% of the people who get Covid-19 will have problems with their smell and taste. 10% of those will have longer-term smell loss, persisting beyond eight weeks. Really long term, say nine months on, we’re looking at something like 3%-5%.’ This means that in the UK alone, the number of people suffering long-term, Covid-related olfactory problems runs into six figures. Worldwide, there are millions.
Membership of AbScent itself has rocketed from 1,400 pre-Covid to 23,000 today. Kelly had the inside track last summer on which countries and regions were being affected by Covid, before it hit the news, simply from the geographical location of the waves of new members joining.
Coping in the wine world
A striking feature of the smell-loss stories I hear from wine professionals is the haziness surrounding the moment of realisation. Federica Zanghirella, vice president of the UK Sommelier Association, was hosting an online tasting class when she noticed the wine in her glass didn’t smell of anything.
Already suffering from flu-like symptoms, she initially blamed the wine. ‘I said, “Sorry guys, I didn’t realise supermarket wines were so bad. This one is absolutely tasteless and it doesn’t have any aroma.” Fortunately, the students are well-trained and started saying, “I can smell this”.’ Tired and feeling ‘miserable’, it wasn’t until the next day that she realised she had a problem.
Almost all speak of awareness gradually coalescing around a plate of food or glass of wine, precipitating a desperate dash to stick their nose in something stinky – Night Nurse (in the case of fine wine trader Gareth Birchley, whose sense of smell is now recovered) or homemade kimchi (in the case of Barney Child).
‘Olfaction is a weird sense in that regard,’ says Simon Gane, consultant rhinologist and ENT surgeon at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital. ‘It’s not particularly present in the human consciousness. If you close your eyes, you’re immediately aware that you’re not seeing anything. If you block your nose, it’s not aware that you’re not smelling anything. But you are constantly smelling things, and that’s quite interesting.’
Smell is the superpower we don’t realise we have. It influences our relationship choices, acts as a navigational tool, has an impact on our mood, is a powerful memory trigger and warns us of potential danger. A single inhalation can tell us that a pan of rice is cooked; that a fox passed by in the night; identify the owner of a scarf; or that a neighbour has just cut his grass. With a bit of experience, simply by breathing, it is also possible to detect illness in some cases: Joy Milne, a retired nurse from Perth, Scotland, made global headlines after sniffing out her husband’s Parkinson’s disease years before it was diagnosed by doctors.
Of course, an expert blind taster can also use their nose to detect the grape variety, country of origin, region and sometimes even the vineyard in which the grapes were grown. At least, they can when their sense of smell is working properly. Wine professionals are understandably guarded when talking about longer-term, post-Covid smell disorders. Privately, many who lost their sense of smell for only a few weeks last spring have told me that they do sometimes have conversations, wondering if their senses are completely as they used to be. But this is hard to pinpoint. A common theme among those who say their smell is ‘90%’ back to normal is an inability to perceive what internet discussion groups euphemistically call ‘bathroom smells’ – ‘it just smells quite sweet, almost biscuity’ is a typical description. One said she had ‘recovered everything, but [she] can’t smell violets’. The less fortunate have more serious disorders that go on for months.
How do you do a job that’s all about smell when your nose isn’t functioning? Or, at least, not properly. Educator Zanghirella, whose sense of smell returned after a few weeks, says she ‘compensated with [her] experience’. One well-known wine personality who partially lost his sense of smell for a period pre-Covid told me: ‘Did I fake wine tastings as a teacher? Yep.’ Restaurant closures have given sommeliers and restaurant buyers a bit of breathing space for recovery.
The science of smells
The working of our olfactory system was unravelled by Linda Buck and Richard Axel, who won a Nobel Prize for their work in 2004. Consultant Gane explains it thus: ‘Normal smell is represented in the brain in a special structure called the olfactory bulb. Within the bulb are little balls of cells called glomeruli. Each receptor neuron [in the nasal cavity] that expresses a particular [olfactory] receptor grows to a matched glomerulus.’
Likening the axons, which link olfactory receptors to a glomerulus, to telephone lines running to a switchboard, he continues: ‘You can imagine a switchboard of lights [in the olfactory bulb]. Each time a receptor picks up a particular odourant, it sends a signal up and lights the light on that switchboard. And it’s the pattern of those lights which the brain then learns is a smell.’
Short-term anosmia is commonly caused by a physical blockage: inflammation or congestion that prevents odour molecules reaching the olfactory receptors at the back of the nasal cavity. But some researchers think that insufficient evidence of either inflammation or congestion in many Covid patients means another theory is needed to explain transient anosmia. They hypothesise that damage occurs to the sustentacular cells, which provide support to olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs), taking them out of commission for a few weeks. Longer-term problems are thought to be caused by nerve damage – that is, damage to the ORNs themselves.
Smell training – simply, taking time twice each day to practise nosing a known set of smells – is thought to assist the process of recovery.
A consuming discussion topic on the AbScent networks is parosmia. Members swap notes on what their ‘parosmia smell’ is like, what triggers it (onions, garlic, chocolate, coffee, roast meat, wine, fried foods, butter, bread and cleaning products are prime culprits) and what are ‘safe’, non-triggering foods. Many sufferers say the parosmia smell is novel, something they have never experienced before, and often liken it to faeces, sewage, drains or chemicals. Chrissi Kelly believes that, often, what people are trying to express with these descriptions is the sense of disgust the smell engenders.
Sniffing out answers
One piece of good news about parosmia, unpleasant though it is, is that it is often an indication of regeneration, that the recovery process has started.
To return to Gane’s switchboard analogy: ‘The first theory [of parosmia], the miswiring theory, is that when you’re recovering they [the axons] don’t grow to the same light any more. So you might have, say, the oaky note [in a wine], which used to light up two or three different lights and now only lights up one of those lights and one other one, in which case the brain doesn’t sense that as smelling ‘oaky’ anymore. It sees a different pattern. And that’s the distortion. The second theory is that the switchboard is actually a little more complicated – that lights interact, so when one is on, it could make it easier or more difficult for another to switch on, so a novel pattern will emerge.’
The disgust response in parosmia is, so far, unexplained, but research led by Dr Jane Parker at the University of Reading has identified four groups of compounds, two of which are sulphur-based and two nitrogen- based, that act as triggers for the parosmia smell. One of the triggering aroma compounds her research identified in coffee is 2-isobutyl- 3-methoxypyrazine, which is also found in bell peppers and Sauvignon Blanc.
Aside from parosmia, a mysterious theme that surfaced repeatedly in my discussions with those experiencing longer-term partial smell loss was a problem smelling red wine. Some tasters who feel they have otherwise recovered, or almost recovered, say they can enjoy white wines, particularly white Burgundy and Riesling, but that red wines remain ‘very closed’.
One said: ‘I’m able to recognise the bass and treble notes, but the mids are either patchy or missing completely. The complex, nuanced aromas that elevate great bottles are really hard for me to detect. Quite upsetting, in all honesty. But bizarrely, my ability to detect flavour in food now appears sharper than pre-Covid.’
Curiously, Barney Child said: ‘If I open a red wine and revisit [it] the next day, then I do tend to get more on the nose.’ Could something else be at work here? Gane says that, in his personal experience, people who have disordered noses for whatever reason ‘often report red wine [and not white] being a problem’, which suggests this might not be an issue that is specific to Covid. Could histamines (red wine has more histamines than white) be involved? We don’t know.
The question everyone wants answered is: when will my sense of smell be back to normal? Again, we don’t know, but Chrissi Kelly offers hope in the face of despair: ‘We know from individual stories of people with pre-Covid anosmia that, yes, there are people who recover after two years.’ So don’t sell off the wine cellar yet.
Is smell training the answer?
Developed by Professor Thomas Hummel, who runs the Smell and Taste Clinic at the University of Dresden, smell training is thought to aid recovery from anosmia. The official smell training kit contains essential oils with four distinct aromas (rose, lemon, eucalyptus and clove), which you spend five minutes concentrating on and sniffing twice a day. It’s not essential to train using those particular smells, or a special kit – the important thing is to use smells that are already familiar and to make sure to focus, because recovery is thought to be top-down as well as bottom-up (that is, initiated in the brain as well as by the receptors). If you do want to buy a kit, AbScent sells one for £34.99.