Tasting With Covid
Posted: 6th December 2021
A little over a month ago, I caught Covid. It came as a surprise. I had always been very careful, even when the body language of those around me proclaimed the thing was over and done with. I was double-vaccinated and recently boosted, and yet I might have been nursing the disease when I had my latest jab. I thought I had a cold: I was sneezing, had a runny nose and slightly inflamed sinuses; but there was no fever, no racking cough, and no shortness of breath. I only realised I had Covid when I picked up a stale bottle of aftershave I keep on my desk to sanitise my hands and found to my dismay my sense of smell had disappeared.
For someone in my position, to lose your sense of smell is like being struck dumb or blind. I admit, I do far less professional tasting than I used to; but all my adult life – nay, all my life – I have used my nose when shopping, to test the foods on my shelves or in the fridge to see what is good or bad to eat, or to determine the moment when something is cooked and ready. I never season things from recipes, but use my nose and tongue to assess them first. All of a sudden I had entered a world where I was groping in the dark, hoping for the best.
I had only a mild dose of Covid. I could still identify sweetness, sourness and saltiness, but my nose was useless and I had lost the retronasal ability which conveys subtler impressions to the palate. The enormity of my loss was slow to dawn on me. I ground beans for my coffee, but there was no smell, even if the coffee hit the spot alright; I lit a cone of incense for my morning bath, the room filled with smoke, but I smelled nothing. The lavender savon de Marseille was also mute. At dinner that night we had a good Corbières, a Château du Trillol from the Wine Society: the structure was there, but not the nose. It was pleasant enough, but a cheap Chianti we drank the next night was just blowsy – it tasted of alcohol and nothing more. Whisky was no better: beyond alcohol the only noticeable thing was salt. Food was uninteresting without taste. For days I could work up no enthusiasm about eating aroma-free pap.
Historic photo of Giles MacDonogh exercising his olfactory bulb
By day three I thought I might be getting a hint of sandalwood from the incense, but when I made some salmon paste for lunch not even pimenton or fresh, grated horseradish was able to give it oomph. I cooked fish for dinner, looking hopelessly for some Indian seasoning I kept in an unmarked jam jar, but again spices did little to cheer it up, even if a dry muscat wine worked on the palate better than most whites.
On day four I could distinctly smell sandalwood in the bathroom, but this did not signal the full return of my senses. I tried chocolate but tasted only of sugar. Relief came in the form of some boquerones: anchovies in oil and lemon juice. Here was acidity and salt, and a chewy texture. Later that evening my nose picked up some kitchen cooking smells from downstairs while I watched a film in my study.
By the fifth day I was getting a faint perfume from the aftershave. I tried various vinegar bottles: my nose recoiled from the smell. My sinuses were still sensitive and I had conjunctivitis. The next day I roasted some Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans. There was a smell coming off the beans, but I was looking for the aroma that told me the beans were done. My beans smelled distressingly like Nescafe or Maxwell House. I began to fear that Covid would permanently disfigure my olfactory sense. Fortunately I knew the coffee was ready when the beans were covered by a thin sheen of oil.
I was still nervous that we were eating tainted foods, and partly relying on colour and texture to tell me if they were past their prime. On the seventh day I made a curry. My nose was able to pick up turmeric, fenugreek, ginger and garam masala. Raw onions proved an irritant to my sinuses. On the tenth day I tried blitzing my sinuses with a bowl of Vicks’ Vapour Rub. It made my eyes sting like billy-o but I was already getting coffee grinds, toothpaste and incense. The following day I tried tasting wine with a collection of cru bourgeois Bordeaux. To my delight I picked up a pronounced fresh-crushed blackcurrant aroma on the 2019s. I got through about sixty, but an attempt to taste a hundred top Ribera del Dueros proved too much, and I had to give up. That night I made a crab sauce with garlic, chilli and parsley. It all tasted proper. I declared myself cured on day twelve when I did an online tasting of some McLaren Vale wines. I heard the others tasting. My notes were in keeping with theirs. The beast was slain.
In the circumstances it is true to say that I tasted less in November than I might have done. I was able to come away with a very good impression of the 2019 Médocs in Bordeaux, even if I had to miss the big UGC tasting the week before. From the 2018 vintage I liked best the Château Haut Barrail, Château Pontey, Château Malescasse (**), Château du Moulin Rouge (**), Château Bellevue de Tayac (**), Château Paveil de Luze (***) the last two in Margaux, and the Château le Crock (**+) in St Estèphe. The 2019s are being touted as rivals to the 1982s. I was struck by the Château Haut-Madrac, Château Laborde (**), Château Peyredon Lagravette (**+), Château Ramage la Batisse (**+), Château Léon Veyrin in Listrac and Château Lilian Ladouys in St Estèphe.
There were some treats too from the Lafite Rothschilds. First up was the 2016 Château des Laurets Baron from Puisseguin St Emilion with a rich, plumy nose and super fine tannins. You quickly recognised superior wine-making associated with Lafite. The structure is lovely and it finished with fresh crushed blackcurrants. From the same stable came the 2016 Château Clarke (one of my friend Oz’s favourite wines) which was more subdued and Médocain with sweet ripe fruit. This might even be better next year. It costs £37.72 from Penistone Wine Cellars.
I also had a couple of very fine wines from Foncalieu near Narbonne: 2020 Petit Paradis, a rare white St Chinian with a lovely creamy, lemony taste that belied its 14% power, and the 2017 Château Haut-Gléon Corbières a lovely, well-mannered wine smelling of caramel, cherries and raspberries with a dense cherry flavour.
A tasting of Vouvrays evoked happy memories for me, especially when I met Nicholas Brunet, a man who had also had the stunning 1871 wine from Prince Poniatowski all those years ago at Lucas-Carton in Paris. There was an impressive series from the Domaine d’Orfeuilles, including an eight-year old sparkler, the honeyed 2019 Silex (flint) and the sweet 2009 Reserve d’Automne. Brunet’s wines were special too, particularly the 2015 Demi-Sec, the super-concentrated 2018 Moelleux and a wonderful 1990 with 150 grams residual sugar. Also very good were the 2020 wines from the Domaine d’Aubert (Yapp Bros).
Crossing to the Southern Hemisphere, from being the home of Grenache for Australian port production, McLaren Vale has gone all Italian. I enjoyed a Vermentino from Chalk Hill, a Sangiovese from Coriole and Nero d’Avola from Hither and Yon.
And there are the Christmas spirits to think about too. Lidl had the best bargains: for £15.99 there is a creditable peated malt called Abrachan and for a pound more the Ben Brachan range of 3-year old Highland, Speyside and Islay, of which the latter impressed me most. I shall speak of a luscious, rich 23-year old Glenfiddich perhaps on another occasion. From Tesco there was an unusual, but winning gin called The Melodist (£20). The label said it contained the botanicals yuzu, green tea and lemon grass. I certainly smelled coriander and it was nicely peppery. Juniper-loving gin stalwarts might raise an eyebrow or two. There were two Tesco 12-year old malts: Highland and Speyside – both at £23. It would be hard to choose: the Highland is more chocolate and butterscotch, while the Speyside is a classic with plenty of sweetness and a nose of creamy rice pudding. A real treat was an XO cognac, 50 cls for £35 with a pretty floral aroma with some rancio, dried apricot notes and a pretty nervousness on the palate. My one reservation would be that it tasted just a little too sweet.
At the end of the month I even had a foreign adventure when I was summoned to address the Sligo Wine Society. For all sorts of reasons I love going to the land of my fathers, but it is not often the food I relish most. Mistake me not: I like good brown bread and I always enjoy a fry with rashers and black and white pudding. I want a pint of proper stout too but otherwise most of what you eat in Ireland is little different to provincial food here. Things seem to be changing, however, if the plaudits going to Chapter One in Dublin are to be believed: for a first time ever, an Irish restaurant is being lauded by British critics. Ireland needs to seize its moment now that Great Britain has gone into isolation.
After my exertions on Rosses Point I was given a present of a side of Keem Bay smoked salmon from Achill Island off the coast of Mayo, where doubtless we MacDonoghs have poached fish for centuries now. This was great smoked salmon as I remember it, rich and smoky and great to taste.