Searching for lost perfumes, with Michele Crippa

20 September 2021

There were those who dismissed Covid at first as being nothing more than an influenza. But it soon became clear that Covid-19 had quite different symptoms, including, notably, a tendency to inhibit victims’ sense of taste and smell. A potentially devastating disease then, for any gastronome.

This was the fate that befell Michele Crippa, former student of the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG), Visiting Professor of Gastronomy in multiple Italian universities, and CEO of Gastronomik, a consulting service for the food industry.

At Searching For Lost Perfumes, a workshop held at the UNISG as part of Cheese 2021, Michele shared his chilling and inspiring story; a journey into the smell blindness of anosmia, and the slow and difficult road back to the world of fragrances and aromas.

Wake up and smell the coffee?

“It was March 17, 2020, 9.40 a.m. I was making my morning coffee when I realized that it had no aroma or flavor. I’d completely lost any sensation, as if my sense of smell and taste had been completely forgotten. I was shocked. Anybody would be shocked, of course, but for someone who uses their palate in their professional life… it’s disorientating to say the least.”

“I had Covid-19, one of many to be infected in the great first wave. I had a mild fever for a day too, but that didn’t create too much discomfort. It was the fact that from one day to the next I found myself unable to understand the world around me. Covid was still a novelty, the lockdown had only begun the week before, and the news I heard was that the symptoms would last around two weeks. In the meantime I was going around my house smelling literally everything from fruit to ammonia, but nothing could provoke any sensation.”

Long Covid

“As we were still in the early stages of the pandemic and there was no knowledge of Long Covid or how long infected people remained contagious, I was confined to my bedroom for three-and-a-half months. Though my sense of taste slowly came back after a month, it was still impaired, because my sense of smell was still completely gone; we all know how much these two senses are intertwined.”

“I was finally released in June when I got a negative test result. It was summer, there was a grand reopening and attempt to return to normality across the country. I went to the sea, hoping to sense the salty perfume of the sea breeze… but still nothing came.”

Good Senses

“In September 2020 I contacted Novella Bagna and Gian Paolo Bareschi of Good Senses, teachers of sensory analysis. Together we tried to understand more, but at that point there were still no serious studies on the effects of Long Covid. Indeed, before Covid there’d never been much medical necessity to study anosmia, because it was generally only caused by facial traumas or cancers; there was no virus before Covid that we know of which could cause long-term olfactory deprivation, but all of a sudden there were tens of thousands of people in Italy alone suffering from the same condition as me.”

“In October something even stranger happened. From anosmia I passed into a new phase: parosmia. There was a phantom odor that I could feel all day, and it wasn’t good. The first sensation I felt when I woke up, even before opening my eyes, was the smell of wet ashtray, or an overcooked cabbage. Then the first studies on the effects of Long Covid started to appear, and confirmed my fears: this was a form of brain damage. The olfactory bulb is disconnected from the hippocampus and other parts of the brain; a so-called neurodegenerative inflammation.”

The smell of hope on the horizon

“But there’s hope. The olfactory bulb is one of the few parts of the brain which is capable of regenerating itself, but this can take seven years. I knew I had to try and do something to speed this process up, to retrain my brain to smell properly through associating what I could smell with memories from the past. In the meantime, the cooked cabbage odor lasted around five or six months. It was hell.”

Michele Crippa. Photo: Good Senses / Luca Rotondo

“Then one morning I opened a packet of biscuits and it was like a vanilla bomb had gone off. I felt like I’d been hit, it was that powerful. I was now becoming hyper-sensitive to certain smells, certain molecules, but it was all mixed up. Peaches smelt of basil. Anything with synthetic vanillin made me want to vomit. The smell of a peeled mandarin orange was unbearable.”

Sensory Analysis

“So what sensory analysis mean?  It can be useful for anyone who wants to train their palate, but in my case it is also a sort of physiotherapy for the olfactory system. Something I badly needed, as my work requires me to inspire passion for tasting in others; something I was no longer able to do. So together with the Centro Studi Assaggiatori (Tasters’ Study Center) inBrescia we developed a professional tool to deliver this physiotherapy, a way to realign the molecular codes being misread by the brain.”

“The tool is called the Sensory Box, and it’s normally something used in the training of sommeliers and other jobs which require a super nose. The kit contains 20 little bottles, each one containing an aroma that should be recognizable, at least for the Italian public it has been designed for. How does the training work? Through using our nose, and our memory, to train and recognize the smells without knowing what they are.”

Smell Memory

“As these smells are all so common, they should all be tied to specific memories for people. Moments, people, places. We all have an incredible number of memories which we cannot always easily access on command, but smell is a powerful trigger tied to those memories which can take us place to those places and times. The triggers are here, in these 20 bottles. So we’re trying to stimulate the olfactory system, but we’re also trying to evoke those memories. It’s a form of hypnosis, neuroscientific hypnosis, to re-link those broken or weak connections we have between what we smell today and our memories of those smells.”

At the end of the course, students should have acquired the following skills:

  • improved olfactory capacity and sensitivity to aromas
  • ability to train their olfactory system in autonomy
  • ability to associated semantic labels to aromas
Michele Crippa with the Sensory Box. Photo: Good Senses / Luca Rotondo

Demonstration

We proceed with a brief demonstration with the public present at the workshop, and the 20 bottles are passed around to be smelled. Michele is thrilled when a young attendee (and student of UNISG) puts his hand up, confident that he’s recognized one of the smells. He tells us he think it’s honey, and indeed, it is. Michele is impressed: only 18% of people who have done the training are able to recognize the smell of honey, and so he asks the young man what memories it brought to him. “I’m from the Aosta Valley,” the young man replies. “Where I live there is a honey festival, and it took me back there in an instant.”

Another participant, a young woman, is unable to recognize another smell, so Michele reads to her a list of occasions, people, events and places that are commonly-associated with the smell in question. After these hints, the young woman’s face lights up: it’s almond! “Sometimes,” Michele concludes, “it’s enough to simply give someone a hint and they’ll recognize the smell. Other times, if someone is really struggling, we might give them a few options and ask them to pick – normally then they pick the right one. But it’s work, and for people with my condition, it’s something we need to work on constantly in order to regain the wonderful world of aromas that Covid took away from us.”

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Cover image: Good Senses