Tasteless: losing my sense of taste with COVID-19

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It’s a cliché to say that you didn’t know what you had until it was gone, but clichés become so for a reason. However, I’m not sure that the first person to utter this phrase thought that it would be used in the context of losing one’s sense of taste as a symptom of a virus. I should preface this by saying that my symptoms of Covid-19 have thankfully been very mild and manageable; I have been very lucky, which has tragically not been the case for many. 

I can only speak from my own limited experience, but I was struck, and am fascinated by, the sensation of losing ‘taste’. It is discussed so often at present, but, for me, it was impossible to understand until it was thrust upon me. 

Far from being genuinely difficult, this experience has been educational, particularly about my attitudes towards food.

At first, it started slipping away slowly; I was describing flavour as seeming ‘muffled’, as though I had a cold. Strong flavours were becoming weaker and weaker; pesto had become a shell of its former self and Dairy Milk chocolate had been rendered all but flavourless. Now, my sense of taste has disappeared more completely, and could be gone for weeks, given the variation in time for which this symptom persists. But how exactly does it feel? And has food lost all of its enjoyment? Interestingly, no.

Again, this may be unique to me, but now, when I eat, I can sense what the flavour was trying to be – its flavour profile, if you will. With subtlety and nuance completely undetectable, I have been drawn to stronger foods in search of an echo of flavour. Anchovies now provide moments of saltiness, a shot of vodka still disseminates warmth around the tongue without the wince-inducing overtones of nail varnish remover, and a regrettable mouthful of chilli confirmed the retention of its fiery power.

Call me a thrill-seeker, but this has forced me to go to culinary extremes in the kitchen in order to gain any satisfaction from food. Shopping lists have become increasingly bizarre, peppered with eclectic combinations of capers, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and, (to reap the health benefits whilst not having to endure its bitterness), copious amounts of celery.

Some believe that people fall into two categories; those who live to eat, and those who eat to live. Beforehand, the structure of my days was built around having three meals, and, during isolation, these meals became individual sources of happiness rather than just sustenance. Thus, I belonged firmly in the first category.

However, now that texture and pure strength of flavour have become king, much of the joy I once derived from food has vanished, and I find myself having to think of food as solely functional, as fuel, as a source of energy. At the risk of sounding very dramatic, it has forced me to temporarily rewire my way of thinking.

I can sense what the flavour was trying to be – its flavour profile, if you will.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss my sense of taste, that a flavour profile could in any way rival the real thing, that I derived the same joy by thinking of food as fuel. If this were indeed the case for everyone, the food industry would be unrecognisable in comparison to what it is today, Heston Blumenthal would most likely be out of a job, and companies like Huel would reign supreme in the supermarket aisles (thankfully, this is not reality).

Far from being genuinely difficult, this experience has been educational, particularly about my attitudes towards food. Time will tell when my sense of taste will return, but to be honest, for now, there isn’t too much to complain about. 

Image: Ajale via Pixabay

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