When COVID-19 stole their scent, these experts lost a lot more

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These symptoms would be quite disturbing to anyone. But Barre is an oenologist, an expert in wines and winemaking. His career, his livelihood, his passion – they all depend on one thing: his ability to feel.

“It’s our working tool, our way of detecting problems,” said Barre, who works in a cooperative cellar in Limoux, a town in southwestern France not far from Carcassonne. “We use it to describe wine, but also to analyze and criticize it.

“It’s like removing a mason’s trowel,” she said. “Very frustrating. And scary.”

For millions of people around the world, anosmia has become a telltale sign of COVID-19, often accompanied by an inability to taste anything other than basic characteristics like sweet or salty. Compared to the more severe symptoms of the disease, however, and the risk of prolonged illness or death, it is often experienced as a minor, albeit shocking, inconvenience.

But for professionals like Barre, smell is no less sense – especially in France, with its famous cuisine, wines and fragrances. For sommeliers, perfumers, oenologists and others, smell is a skill perfected over the years to identify elements such as subtle citrus notes in a fragrance or analyze the bouquet of a ripe Bordeaux.

When COVID-19 pulls that away, the fear of the consequences of retirement can be particularly startling, making anosmia a difficult topic, if not taboo.

Barre, who can still do other work at the co-op, said his employer and colleagues were understanding. But even at the start of the harvest season, she still hasn’t fully recovered her sense of smell and feels powerless to rely on others to taste and approve the wines.

“It’s very stressful to ask myself, ‘Tomorrow, if I never get my sense of smell back, what should I do?’ Said Barre. “And I haven’t answered that question yet.”

Louane Cousseau, right, works with Olga Alexandre, a neuropsychiatrist who works with patients who have lost their sense of smell, in Paris, May 21, 2021 (Dmitry Kostyukov / The New York Times)

A survey conducted last year by Oenologues de France, a union of wine experts, found that its members’ coronavirus infection rates were comparable to those of the general population. But nearly 40% of those infected said disturbances in smell or taste affected them professionally.

Sophie Pallas, executive director of the union, said oenologists who have lost their sense of smell due to COVID-19 are often reluctant to admit it publicly “because it damages their professional image.”

Pallas herself fell ill and said her anosmia was like a “black curtain” sucking in the pleasure of drinking wine. Even those who recover quickly may be reluctant to speak up.

“We don’t have very precise measurement tools yet,” Pallas said, noting that basic capabilities return quickly, but not the peak performance of a nose. “It’s complicated to certify that you have recovered all your faculties.”

Fears that COVID-19 could derail careers are particularly acute in the highly competitive world of perfumery, where perfumers – sometimes called “noses” in France – work hand in hand with assessors to select and dose chemical components. of a perfume for months or even years.

“It’s terrifying, like a pianist losing his fingers,” said Calice Becker, a French perfumer who has created several leading perfumes, including J’adore de Dior, and who is now the director of a perfume school. internal to Givaudan, a Swiss company of aromas and perfumes.

Anosmia is not limited to COVID-19, which scientists say disrupts neural pathways from the nose to the brain, although its effect on the olfactory system is not yet fully understood. Other diseases or head injuries can also cause loss of smell or parosmia, the condition that causes phantom or distorted odors.

But for perfumers, the pandemic has made a previously rare and distant threat much more real, Becker said.

Seasoned professionals with anosmia can still compose a perfume’s formula, she said, because experience tells them how products smell and how they will interact, just as Beethoven was able to compose music towards the end of his life despite his deafness.

Still, she said, “You have to trust people who can be your nose and tell you that you are going in the right direction.”

Likewise, sommeliers instinctively know which wines and dishes will pair well. But Philippe Faure-Brac, the president of the French sommeliers union, said anosmia made it more difficult to work with chefs on new or more subtle agreements; worse, its victims cannot detect corked wines.

“We are professionals,” said Faure-Brac, who lost his scent from COVID-19 last year. Recovery, he said, “must be measured by our professional standards.”

Anosmia is particularly stressful for students who need to take tests and obtain crucial career placements.

Mathilde Ollivier, independent oenologist who advises winegrowers in the Loire Valley, France, on August 23, 2021. Ollivier went through a training program after losing her sense of smell due to Covid-19 and after several weeks she s' felt confident enough to return to work.  (Dmitry Kostyukov / The New York Times)

Mathilde Ollivier, independent oenologist who advises winegrowers in the Loire Valley, France, on August 23, 2021. Ollivier went through a training program after losing her sense of smell due to Covid-19 and after several weeks she s’ felt confident enough to return to work. (Dmitry Kostyukov / The New York Times)

When Louane Cousseau, a second year student at the École Supérieure du Parfum, a perfume school in Paris, caught what she thought was a cold in April, she infused an inhalation of thyme but was unable to feel. She then rushed to her fridge to grab a handful of basil, one of her favorite herbs: nothing. She had COVID-19.

“I called my mother in tears,” says Cousseau, 19, who wants to work in the cosmetics industry. She recovered slowly and struggled with her year-end scent test: a blind smell test.

Her school recommended that she work with Olga Alexandre, a neuropsychiatrist and instructor who uses the sense of smell to help patients cope with serious illnesses or psychological disorders and who applied her method to patients with anosmia.

“We use this meaning so often and so unconsciously that we are not at all aware of its importance,” said Alexander.

One recent morning at school, she was evaluating Cousseau by soaking her blotters in scent bottles. Cousseau correctly identified black pepper but confused bitter orange with tangerine. The aromas of pineapple, cucumber and porcini mushrooms have remained elusive.

Cousseau closed his eyes to sniff the end of another strip. “Mandarin this time?” She ventured. It was lemon. “Truly?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide open. “I usually have that one.”

Alexandre, who is trying to help reconstruct the neural pathways related to smell through memories or emotions, asked Cousseau to choose a square of colored paper to accompany the scent (bright yellow), to talk about his aspects (“sour, sparkling, fresh”) and associate it with a happy thought (his mother cutting lemon in a sunny kitchen in southwest France).

Cousseau, cheerful and outgoing, had a positive outlook on her situation.

“It’s true that I panicked, but I quickly said at school because I knew they could help me,” she said. Not all students felt so comfortable coming forward. “There are people in my class who didn’t want to do this, who got infected and I didn’t even know it,” she said.

Even established professionals can be stigmatized because of COVID-19.

Mathilde Ollivier, 33, an independent oenologist who advises winemakers in the Loire Valley, realized one February morning that she could not smell her shower gel, sending her scrambling for toiletries for see if any perfumes were released. She went through a training program and after several weeks – once the wines no longer had the lingering smell of toasted hazelnuts – felt confident enough to return to work.

But a fellow oenologist was baffled that she had told her clients about her “embarrassing” illness. Another said it was a mistake to open up to local media about her experience. Ollivier countered that transparency was crucial to retaining the hard-earned trust of his clients.

“We need to talk about it,” she said, to break the taboo.

Ollivier, from a long line of winegrowers, recalled childhood memories of smelling wine during family meals. Soon she will be the eighth generation to take over the family vineyard – projects that were abruptly, albeit temporarily, undermined when she fell ill.

“Taking over the vineyard without being able to smell my own wines is impossible,” she remembers thinking. “When your job is your passion – and the same is true for many artisans and food professionals – it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. “

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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