PARIS – Hélène Barre, 35, lost her sense of smell when she fell ill with Covid-19 in November, a disease known as anosmia. His slow recovery was hampered by disturbing distortions: The peanuts smelled like prawns, raw ham like butter, rice like Nutella. The phantom smell of something burning still bothers her for hours.
These symptoms would be quite disturbing to anyone. But Mme Barre is an oenologist, specialist 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 Ms. Barre, who works at 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 the inability to taste anything other than basic characteristics like sweet or savory. Compared to the more severe symptoms of the disease and the risk of long-term illness or death, it is often experienced as a minor inconvenience, even discordant.
But for professionals like Mme Barre, smell is not the least bit of a sense, especially in France, with its famous cuisine, wines and perfumes. 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 it off, the fear of consequences at the end of a career can be particularly striking, making anosmia a difficult subject, even taboo.
Ms Barre, who can still do other work at the co-op, said her employer and colleagues have been 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?’ ”Ms. Barre said. “And I haven’t answered that question yet.”
A survey conducted last year by Oenologists from France, a union of wine experts, found that coronavirus infection rates for its members 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, the union’s executive director, 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.”
Ms 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,” Ms. 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 will derail careers are particularly acute in the highly competitive world of perfumery, where perfumers – sometimes called “noses” in France – work hand in hand with evaluators to select and dose the 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 fragrances, including I love Dior, and who is now director of an internal perfumery school in Givaudan, a Swiss company of aromas and fragrances.
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, Ms. 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 head of the French union of sommeliers, said anosmia made it harder to work with conductors on new or more subtle chords; worse, its victims cannot detect corked wines.
“We are professionals,” said Mr 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.
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 the Covid-19.
“I called my mother in tears,” says Ms. 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,” Ms. Alexandre said.
One recent morning at school, she was evaluating Ms. Cousseau by soaking her blotters in scent bottles. Ms. Cousseau correctly identified black pepper, but confused bitter orange with tangerine. The aromas of pineapple, cucumber and porcini mushrooms have remained elusive.
Madame Cousseau closed her 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.”
Ms Alexandre, who is trying to help reconstruct the neural pathways related to smell through memories or emotions, asked Ms Cousseau to choose a square of colored paper to accompany the scent (bright yellow), d ” discuss its aspects (“acidic, sparkling, fresh”) and associate it with a happy thought (her mother cutting lemon in a sunny kitchen in southwestern France).
Ms. 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 followed a workout regime 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 to local media on his experience. Ms. Ollivier countered that transparency was crucial to maintaining the hard-earned trust of her clients.
“We need to talk about it,” she said, to break the taboo.
Ms. 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. “
Léontine Welsh contributed reports.