Scrolling though social media one morning in March 2020, when Covid symptoms were still confined to a raised temperature and a new and continuous cough, I was startled to read a post by a friend who reported what was, to me, a far more disturbing phenomenon: her porridge now tasted like a bowl of snot.
Though she still can’t stomach porridge almost a year on, Elaine is in one sense lucky – at least she doesn’t rely on her sense of smell to pay the rent. For those of us who do, such a loss is even harder to take. “In our job it’s almost embarrassing to admit it,” one food writer confesses, “so I’ve managed it the best I can, using family to taste recipes on my behalf.” Though her senses began to return after about six weeks, they weren’t quite the same as before. “Some food tasted rotten – I completely went off meat and fish for a couple of weeks – and some dairy, mainly milk, developed a slightly ‘off’ taste.” At one point her sensitivity to certain smells forced her to replace her silicone kitchen implements with wooden versions.
About 65 per cent of Covid patients are believed to suffer a smell disorder. The food author Marlena Spieler, who has spent a decade teaching herself to taste again after a car accident, warns against underestimating the problem: “At times, I wanted to die… I know if you haven’t experienced it, it sounds a bit frivolous, but [taste] really is a part of life.”
According to AbScent, a charity that supports the estimated 3.3 million Britons with smell loss, the virus attacks cells supporting the neurons that send olfactory signals to the brain. According to the charity’s website, “the good news is these support cells can regrow… But while this healing process is going on, the smell messages that reach the brain are affected. This could mean you smell nothing (anosmia), you smell the wrong thing (parosmia), or you might even smell something that’s not there at all (phantosmia).” (Elaine was plagued by the scent of rotten apples; it was ammonia for the Ghanian food writer Freda Muyambo.)
Susan Spaull thought things were back to normal eight months after contracting Covid – until friends remarked how “well seasoned” the chef’s food had become. Following a more recent illness, “although I can smell now, often too well, the smells are incorrect. Garbage smells fruity and rather nice, chocolate smells of cardboard… The texture and temperature of food has become vital now that it has virtually no flavour other than salt and acidity.”
The documentary maker Lance Dann found the initial total loss of smell preferable to his current situation: “One of the most wearing things is it’s not consistent… I had tomatoes for dinner last night and they were fine; at lunchtime they tasted horribly metallic. It’s dispiriting.” He is unable to stomach the merest whiff of onion or garlic: “It shows you how much flavour is a compound element; if someone’s playing a chord on a guitar and one string is slightly off, it’s ruined. Four per cent garlic in a sauce… completely trashes it for me. I’m going to be a nightmare guest when we can finally go out again.”
As well as the smell training therapy suggested by charities such as AbScent and Fifth Sense, Dann has found comfort in online forums: “I’ve never joined a Facebook group before, but it’s been very reassuring.” Beer may suddenly taste of “old lady perfume” and coffee of rotten eggs, but, he says, “even if your brain is getting things wrong, at least it shows you’re making progress”.
Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth