Michele Crippa is a 32-year-old gastronomer popular on Instagram with gastronomik.it. Once, he could have listed all the aromas and scents in a dish with his eyes closed, but a bout with COVID-19 in 2020 led to anosmia (loss of sense of smell) and ageusia (loss of taste). “After I recovered from the virus, I couldn’t stay still. Not only was it impossible for me to do my job, since my senses of taste and smell were both impaired, but also because I could not understand why there were no doctors and treatment centres specialising in recovering these senses. I decided to get involved to help myself and others regain their lost nose“, says Michele.
Over the course of a few months, and thanks to the support of a number of professionals, Michele developed a pathway, a real training journey to help patients recover their sense of smell and correct sensory dispersions (for information: firstname.lastname@example.org).
How the journey works
This journey consists of two stages: commencing with a four-hour course on the physiology and biology of the individual senses and improving our ability to use our sense of smell to notice scents. After that, training continues through the use of a tool, which resembles the olfactory test used for training sommeliers, called the Sensory Box, containing 20 bottles that reproduce aromas present in the life experiences of our society and are representative of the large aromatic families (floral, fruity, vegetable, empyreumatic, spicy) among the most popular in Italy, from apple to liquorice, from truffle to lemon. Crippa explained that after attending the theoretical course, the nose should continue training every day.
In creating this box, Crippa involved the Centro Studi Assaggiatori di Brescia and two lecturers from the Università̀ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Piacenza: Professor Novella Bagna, an expert in the use of sensory analysis and statistical data collection for research, and Gian Paolo Braceschi, a food technologist with a master’s degree in sensory analysis and managing director of Good Senses, a company specialising in sensory analysis that has been training the sense of smell for years.
The first part of the course necessarily takes place in the presence of students in special, comfortable Sensory Labs, laboratories often found in universities where food science is studied, in which it is possible to carry out evaluations on a wide variety of food matrices: from coffee to wine, oil and chocolate. “The Sensory Labs, thanks to rigorous control of environmental conditions (lights are dimmed, noises are muffled, air circulation eliminates odours), allow you to taste a food, not only with your taste buds, but involving all your senses, from sight to smell, from hearing to touch”, explains Crippa.
The COVID legacy
“the virus caused neurological damage that disrupted communication between the olfactory bulb, where odours are picked up, and the olfactory memory, where the memory of that odour is stored, but it did not affect the olfactory memory itself”, clarifies Crippa.
We aim, with our training, to restore that pathway through the stimulation of associated memories.
The sense of smell, in fact, explains the expert, who is also a lecturer in the history and culture of gastronomy and food science and technology, is, among our sense organs, certainly the most instinctive and most connected to our emotions and experiences. “It is therefore important to try to stimulate again those scents encrypted in our memory, linked to emotions and memories of the past“. This is not so easy, but requires specific training, olfactory training. In this video, Professor Novella Bagna explains how to use even common products, the ones you use most in everyday life, such as lemon, eucalyptus and cloves.
Interest among scientists
The path developed by Crippa is now the focus of research and study by neuroscientists, social psychologists and food experts. “People are contacting me from all over the world, from as far away as Israel and the United States, and I’m thrilled because I’d like to be able to help even more effectively those who are still coping not only with anosmia and ageusia, but also with cacosmia and parosmia, which have the undesired effect of distorting olfactory perception, so that aromas that are usually perceived as pleasant (such as vanilla, citrus peel, mint, basil or coffee) turn out to be very unpleasant and disgusting”.
“I still don’t recognise my own skin”
These last two are precisely the condition that the gastronomer is still dealing with. “I have become hypersensitive to certain flavours, particularly orange peel and vanillin. I feel them strongly, overpoweringly, to the point of nausea”. Taste, over the months, has recovered to some extent, but going hand in hand
with smell, it is obvious that it is distorted: “I can perceive sweet, salty, sour on the endings of my palate, but the experience is influenced by what my nose senses”. Crippa cannot even smell his own skin as he used to. “I feel it has changed, as if I always taste of onion, even after a shower. This shocks me every day”.
“We’re lost without our sense of smell”
Indeed, the expert explains that “the olfactory system plays an important, albeit largely unrecognised, role in emotional wellbeing“. Dr Sandeep Robert Datta, associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, recently told the New York Times that scientific studies have linked anosmia to social isolation and anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure“.
Yet, Crippa concludes, “taste and smell have long been the Cinderellas of the senses: never before had we understood their importance. Today, however, it is clear that life without it is unbearable. Gastronomers, who study food not only from a culinary point of view, but also from a cultural and symbolic, even ontological, point of view, have always known this“.