The "super taster" who lost his sense of smell helps Italians find him again

PIACENZA, Italy – Michele Crippa’s palace was renowned in Italian gastronomic circles, able to appreciate the most subtle flavors. He t...


PIACENZA, Italy – Michele Crippa’s palace was renowned in Italian gastronomic circles, able to appreciate the most subtle flavors.

He taught young chefs to distinguish between Parmesan cheeses of different ages and between milk extracted at different altitudes. He reveled in the scent of smoked cod with pine cones. In his reviews for Italy’s leading food magazine, he discerned the smell of champagne in raw Nicaraguan coffee beans and tasted traces of green peas in a Kenyan blend.

Then at 9:40 a.m. on March 17, 2020, Mr. Crippa, 32, poured himself a cup of coffee. He only tasted hot water.

Like so many who have contracted the coronavirus, Mr Crippa lost the ability to smell – so intrinsic to tasting food – and when he came back, he came back deformed.

The spoiled milk tasted good. Sweet puffs of vanilla triggered surges of disgust. The peaches tasted like basil.

An expert who once could describe the sea breezes and volcanic soil he detected in sips of Sicilian white wine, could do nothing better than to call it “cold.”

On a recent morning, Mr Crippa, 32, stood in front of a group of Italians suffering similarly in the town of Piacenza in northern Italy.

They had gathered in a university lab equipped with vacuum cleaners to remove extra odors from the air, a place often used by professional tasters to assess the origins and quality of olive oils, coffee blends, grappas and chocolates.

But this group just wanted to taste anything again and turned to Mr. Crippa for help.

“We must not give up,” he told them.

Mr. Crippa didn’t surrender and his persistence paid off, at least somewhat.

He changed over the months, with the help of sensory analysis experts who train winegrowers and truffle growers. While he believes he has a long way to go before returning to his old olfactory exploits, he has become in Italy a symbol of gastronomic resilience – and hope that the lingering effects of Covid-19 can be overcome.

For those who “share the same turn of life,” as Mr. Crippa refers to his illness, he organized a therapy course with the help of the Tasters Research Center, a group of food science professors who believe that the meaning of smell is connected to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in controlling emotions.

As many doctors all over the world, who now recommend home training, Crippa and his partners believe that recalling a memory related to a smell can help reactivate neural pathways disrupted by the virus.

They started running online training sessions, posting tutorials, and spending hours giving personal advice and pointers. National radio and TV shows have invited Mr. Crippa as a guest, and magazines have asked to share his 10-point guide to smell and taste again. He is also developing a cookbook for people who have lost their sense of taste or found it hopelessly transformed by the virus.

As the reports of his rehabilitation distributed in Italian newspapers, he received messages from hundreds of people who had also lost their scent, including a mortified pastry chef in a three Michelin star restaurant and discouraged sommeliers.

“Reading these messages broke me in two,” Crippa said.

Like many food industry workers who have lost their scent, he was initially reluctant to step into the limelight. “Exposing himself as the odorless foodie was not pleasant,” he said, adding that while he was worried about his reputation and career, there was “a huge need to help These persons”.

With both his condition and his attempts to help others now well-known, he said chefs who recognize his name when he reserves a table surprised him with dishes dedicated to strong flavors in the hope that he can savor something.

A loathing for blandness is what caused Mr. Crippa to eat in the first place.

He grew up eating plain pasta and supermarket mozzarella while his father, a carpenter, and his mother, a school principal, worked long hours and showed little interest in food. At the age of 7 at the beach, he put in his mouth a yellow datterino tomato, salted with sea water, and the mixture of acid, salt and sweetness, he recalled, opened his senses to a new universe filled with flavors. .

He began to bake roasts and cakes for his family. When he was 8, he tried 15 times – without success – to make coconut soufflé. Instead of posters of footballers, the walls of his room were decorated with newspaper clippings ranking the best Italian chefs.

At 14, Mr. Crippa met Luciano Tona, famous as a teacher of great chefs, who became his mentor, getting him jobs helping in the kitchens of famous restaurants. At 22, he was running the Antica Corte Pallavicina restaurant in northern Italy when he earned his first Michelin star.

Graduated in gastronomic sciences from Slow Food University, he began a career as a consultant, critic and historian of cooking.

“I was a great taster,” he said. “It’s something you were born with. “

Until the coronavirus took it out.

“You sit at a table with your friends and eat a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce that has no taste,” Mr. Crippa said. “That dry, tired, flat, smothered cardboard spaghetti plate is becoming emotionally debilitating.”

When even a fraction of his lost senses returned in September – when for the first time in months he smelled a faint coconut scent in his shower gel – it was so overwhelming that he sobbed.

Part of his mission is not only to try to help people regain their sense of taste, but also to provide support to the people who are going through what he has done.

“When this happened to me,” he said, “I felt completely alone.”

To further help those who contact him, Mr. Crippa often puts them in touch with Arianna Di Stadio, a professor of neuroscience who is experimenting with a treatment at San Giovanni Hospital in Rome that works in helping patients regain their sense of smell. .

Dr Di Stadio said Mr Crippa’s gastronomic approach to loss of smell was far from a guarantee of success. But drawing more attention to the problem, she added, could only help.

“I am a scientist,” said Dr Di Stadio. “He has a simpler way of communicating.

The group that had signed up for their training sessions in the sensory lab at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Plaisance said the support Mr Crippa offered was a vital part of the experience.

“Finding out about Michele made me feel more secure and better understood,” said Martina Madaschi, 22, a workshop student who lost her sense of smell a year ago after contracting the virus in Bergamo, one of the most affected cities in the world. She now had a hard time smelling the almond extract in an unlabeled bottle placed under her nose.

Mr. Crippa knelt down next to Ms. Madaschi and asked her to remember the “taste, texture, smell” of nuts. She could not. But then he gave her a vial with mint in it and guided her through her memories of a summer night.

“Virgin mojito,” Ms. Madaschi said, recalling the minty smell of the drink. “I would never have recognized it on my own.”

Mr. Crippa said these little moments of success have strengthened his commitment to helping others find what he loves most.

“Do you have any idea,” he said, “how much I miss Barolo tastings?”

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