Losing smell and taste when they’re your job

Professional tasters rely on their senses of smell and taste. Loss of both has been a symptom of Covid-19. And people don’t always get their senses back fully after recovery. (Photo by Elle Hughes on Unsplash.)

To most people, a temporary loss of their senses of smell and taste might be annoying at worst.  But what about when your livelihood depends on those senses?

A friend sent me a link to a Reuter’s article on French wine tasters who’ve had Covid-19 and experienced losses of taste and smell.  For many, these senses returned after recovery but weren’t the same as before.  According to one enologist quoted in the article, she lost the ability to taste subtler flavors that contribute to many wines’ taste profiles.  And although she has been trying to retrain herself by deliberately smelling and tasting those flavors, progress is slow for some and nonexistent for others. 

We tend to think of Covid-19 affecting the workforce by physically not being able to come to work, or by losing their jobs in an industry that relies on in-person interaction.   Obviously, other people’s jobs are affected, too.  Loss of smell and taste has become enough of an issue that French associations representing wine businesses have asked President Macron and Prime Minister Castex to move professional tasters up in the queue for vaccination.  Not just to protect their members’ livelihoods, but to ensure quality and continuity of a resource considered essential to the culture.

It’s tempting to downplay the impact on what you’d think is a small group whose jobs seem esoteric, and frankly, a dream come true for many.  But it affects more than just the wine industry.  Consider this:  every manufactured food and beverage has been tasted over and over by expert tasters.  Even if it’s something that has been made for years, it gets tasted every day.  (Trust me, that was part of my job when I worked in food product development.) And products with any kind of fragrance get examined by professional “noses,” even apart from how they might taste – plus plenty of non-edible products get sniffed as well.  Think cleaning products and cosmetics, for example. Scientific instruments can only go so far.  In the end, people have to decide if these products meet whatever aroma and flavor requirements are necessary.

This applies to foods we don’t think of as “manufactured,” too, such as restaurant food.  When you go to a favorite restaurant and order a dish you like, you expect it to be the same every time.  Of course, fresh ingredients being what they are, the dish might not taste the same as before – except that the chef can account for the vagaries and make adjustments.  Chefs are essentially tasters at heart.

In the wine world, wineries rely on professional tasters to make the best products they can.  In some cases, those “professionals” are the winemakers themselves.  But they often turn to others for a variety of issues.  You might think that producing wine that appeals to a wide range of people, whether they’re professional tasters or not, would be enough.  However, a supertaster could detect something that might become more pronounced as a wine ages, for good or bad.  That person could also put a current vintage in the context of previous ones, or assist in making blends that promote greater consistency. (Wine critics are tasters too, although they work for the wine-drinking public rather than producers.)

Another issue: Whether intentionally or not, these tasters help form the institutional memory of wineries.  They often work with the same wineries for decades and become part of the fabric of the place, and are, even if anonymously, a huge factor in a winery’s reputation.  Of course, new tasters can be trained to take over those duties.  People’s senses of smell and taste tend to fade with age, so these tasters would have to be replaced eventually.  But no one wants to be stuck in a situation where an important resource suddenly gets sidelined.

Reading the Reuters article made me think back on my early working life in a research facility. Smell was an important tool on the production line. A sudden change in smell could mean that there was a problem with the materials or the machinery. No doubt that’s true for many people’s jobs, even if they’re not always aware of it. Yet another reason to protect ourselves from Covid.

——————–

Happy one month into spring, everyone!  We’re alternating between gorgeous weather and wind and cold here.  Starting with Novrooz, or Persian New Year, through Easter, and sliding into May, it has also been a month of eating and drinking on our front porch even when it’s chilly.  After a long season where it was definitely too cold, we aren’t deterred by weather we wouldn’t have sat outside in during the pre-Covid era.

This has meant trying out new drinks and nibbles. David Lebovitz has been my go-to for many of the recipes.  Like his Liaison and Ménage à Quatre cocktails from his Drinking French book.  And a snack that took me a few times to get right, Salty Olive Crisps in My Paris Kitchen.**

These were the two most winsome in my first batch of David Lebovitz’s Salted Olive Crisps. Most of them didn’t look this uniform, though. I’ve since tinkered with the recipe, including adding raisins.

They’re savory biscotti with chopped almonds and olives in them – baked once, then sliced and baked again to dry them out.  But instead of free-form dough logs you’d make for regular biscotti, these have more of a cake or quick bread batter baked in a loaf pan.  This makes them more delicate and harder to slice.  Also, since the batter is thinner, the added olives and almonds tend to sink while the cake is in the oven.  I set out to fix these problems, and also add another mix-in and a sprinkling of coarse salt on the top.

[The following paragraph contains baking nerdiness.  You may skip to the next one to avoid it…]

My first thought was that I could coat the mix-ins with some of the flour mixture to keep them from sinking.  But more importantly, since half the flour is whole wheat, they’d need some time before putting them in the oven to make sure the flour absorbs the liquid and would thicken a bit (also helping keep the mix-ins from sinking).  Easy enough by letting the batter rest.  However, since they’re only leavened with baking soda, the resting time would also allow some of the soda-generated leavening bubbles to escape.  Adding ¼ teaspoon of baking powder counteracts bubble loss, since baking powder is also heat activated – some bubbles get generated in the oven.  I decided to add ¼ cup of golden raisins to the mix because their little bit of sweetness played well with the saltiness of the olives.  Finally, the coarse salt on top reminds you that these are savory, and adds a little zing, too.

[End nerdiness.]

Enjoy the crisps with any beverage you like.  Since we still have chilly weather, I’m recommending two medium-bodied wines from our new producer in Abruzzo.  Chiara Ciavolich’s family has been in Abruzzo since the 16th century, when they fled Bugaria which was under control of the Ottoman Empire.  Her Montepulciano ($16) and Pecorino ($19) are delicious with warm- and cold-weather foods.  Think of them as a nice way to get through vaccination season.  And by the way, the crisps smell great while they’re baking, so I hope you’ll get to experience it.

Cheers!

Tom

** David Lebovitz has been vocal about guidelines for reprinting his recipes, as you can read on his website.  Totally reasonable and understandable.  He prefers that writers link to his website for recipes, and that you ask permission from the publisher if you’re going to print them verbatim.  (The one thing I can say in defense of bloggers is that I’ve tried this before, and you can definitely track publishers’ responses in geologic time when you ask.  Unless you’re a big name, there’s no incentive for them to respond.) However, as far as I can tell, the recipes for the three items I mentioned aren’t on Liebovitz’s site.  You can find the Ménage à Quatre in this article that he wrote for Saveur magazine.  Drinking French and My Paris Kitchen are available for purchase here and here.  Other bloggers have reprinted the recipes verbatim, but I won’t link to them myself since they almost certainly didn’t have permission.  Because I have created my own version of the Salted Olive Crisps and rewritten the text, I meet the criteria for calling them “Adapted from,” so that’s what I’ve posted with the recipe below.

Savory Olive, Almond, and Raisin Crisps

Adapted from Salted Olive Crisps found in My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz

Makes 30 to 36 crisps

½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour (flour spooned into ½ cup measure and leveled off if not weighed)

½ cup (70 grams) whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon fine salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup buttermilk (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice plus enough milk to get to the 1-cup mark. You can use lemon juice and almond milk for a vegan variation.)

1/3 cup slivered raw almonds, coarsely chopped (45 grams)

1/3 cup (60 grams) packed, coarsely chopped pitted black olives (dry them in a paper towel if they’re in brine)

¼ cup golden raisins (30 grams), roughly chopped

Flaked or coarse salt

Olive oil for coating pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of a 9” x 5” loaf pan (preferably with straight up-and-down rather than sloping sides, but don’t worry about it, use what you have).  Brush the inside of the pan all over with olive oil.  Then put the parchment in the bottom and lightly oil it, too.

In a bowl whisk together the flours, dried herbs, fine salt, pepper, baking powder, and baking soda.  Set aside 1-1/2 tablespoons of the flour mixture.  In another bowl, mix the chopped olives, almonds, and raisins.  Add the reserved flour mixture, and toss with your fingers to separate and coat every piece.  Stir the buttermilk into the remaining flour mixture with a spatula, then add the coated mix-ins.  Let the batter sit on the counter for 10 minutes.

Pour the rested batter into the prepared pan.  Sprinkle the top lightly with coarse salt, a couple of big pinches worth.  Set in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes.  You can tell it’s done because the center will feel firm and the loaf will start coming away from the sides of the pan.  Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack, remove the paper, and set it right side up to cool for at least 30 minutes, preferably 45.

In the meantime, turn the oven to 325 degrees F, or 300 degrees F if you have a convection oven.  (The convection setting can help the crisps brown more quickly.) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Holding the outside edges of the cooled loaf firmly with your hand to keep the edges from crumbling, slice the loaf crosswise with a sharp serrated bread knife as thinly as possible, a maximum of ¼-inch per slice.  You’ll have to hold the loaf right up to where you’re slicing, so be careful.  Despite your best efforts, there will be some crumbling.  You can push pieces that crumble off back onto a slice; sometimes they’ll stick and sometimes they won’t.  But try it nonetheless.  (Go ahead and eat the bits that won’t reattach.)

Lay the slices down on the baking sheets and bake for anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes.  Flip the slices and rotate the baking sheets after 15 minutes.  You’re looking for them to be a deep golden brown but not burnt, so watch carefully after about 20 minutes.  If they’re not browning after 30 minutes (which happens more than half the time for me), flip the slices again and then bake them in five-minute intervals until they’re done.  If some of them get done before the others, remove them to a cooling rack while the rest continue baking.

Remove the pans from the oven and let the crisps cool completely on a rack before serving.  They’ll keep for about five days in an airtight container at room temperature.

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1 Response to Losing smell and taste when they’re your job

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Proof of Terroir

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