Losing your sense of smell

Aroma plays a fundamental role in the pleasure that we take when drinking a nice glass of wine. So how would you feel about losing your sense of smell?

This morning I had a long chat on-line with a former client of ours.  We spent a couple of days together 2 years ago during harvest time and spent an amazing day in Bourgueil with one of our favourite producers. We saw grapes come into the winery and observed the free-run juice pouring from the trailer, we climbed up on the top of the machine harvester to see how it works, we stuck our noses in every tank and inhaled the heady aroma of fermenting grapes.  We enjoyed a ‘workers’ lunch alongside the winery staff (salads, beef tongue in madeira sauce, pasta, cheeses and fruit accompanied by some basic local red) and then we visited the caves dug deep into the tuffeau limestone beneath the vineyards.  We breathed in the musty damp aromas of the cave and admired the wooden barrels, covered in the mould that feeds upon the fumes given off by the maturing wine.

So how different would this experience have been if we were not able to smell our surroundings?  It’s hard to imagine.

Our former client, a healthy young woman, had a skateboarding accident in the summer of 2012.  She fractured her skull and had a subdural hemmorhage resulting in a complete loss of smell.    She was explaining to me how this has changed her life and her ability to appreciate food and wine.  Our sense of smell is directly linked with the most primal part of our brains and so memories and emotions are triggered by smell.  This is something that we talk about all the time during our wine tasting sessions.  Our sense of smell is unique to each one of us and as our life experiences are different (our country of birth, upbringing, climate etc) then our emotions are triggered when we smell something from our own experiences.

It’s no good talking about the aroma of blackcurrant to the Italians as they are not familiar with it as a fruit.  You’re wasting your time trying to get the English to understand the aroma of quince – we don’t grow them and preserve them like the French.  And it’s no good trying to talk about rhubarb and gooseberries to our American clients as they wouldn’t recognise the aroma if it jumped out the glass.  That’s just it you see – it’s personal!  Often memories are triggered by aromas or smells but we don’t identify them as such.  A good example would be the smell of the dentist’s waiting room, the apple pie your granny used to make in the autumn, the smell of your dog after walking in the rain. And these moments, captured by smell lie long in our memories and come back to us when a familiar aroma sends signals to our brain.

So what if you didn’t have that any more – what then?  Until this morning I don’t think I’d even given it a moment’s thought. I take such pleasure in taste and smell that it’s hard to imagine what it would be like.  But she has had to deal with it and relies on texture, spice and the emotional attachment that she has had in the past with food.  Very hard when she is a traveller, and such a large part of discovery in any country is through its food, its wines and its smells.

She told me ‘Things like…the smell of the ocean, fall and the first day of school, my mom’s house…these are all smells I miss and at times I can get a little sad for it. But I take a step back and think…I am happy to be alive. And it pulls me out of the sadness’. I felt so sad  because she admitted that after spending time in the Loire with us she had started to develop a real appreciation for wine and  I realised that I, and probably the majority of us take these things  for granted.

So the next time I breathe in the cold air while I’m walking the dog, I cry while chopping onions for a casserole or sit in front of a smoky wood burning stove, the next time I open a bottle of wine, pour myself a glass, lift it to my nose and inhale the wonderfully complex aromas, I’ll raise my glass to her in admiration for the positive way in which she has come to terms with her loss of smell and thank my lucky stars that I still have mine.