PIACENZA, Italy — Michele Crippa’s palate was known in the gastronomic circles of Italy and could appreciate the most subtle flavors.
He taught young chefs to distinguish between Parmesan cheeses of different ages – and between milk extracted at different heights. He loved the smell of cod being smoked over pine cones. In his reviews for Italy’s leading food magazine, he discovered the smell of champagne in raw Nicaraguan coffee beans and tasted traces of green peas in a blend from Kenya.
Then, at 9:40 a.m. on March 17, 2020, Mr Crippa, 32, poured himself a cup of coffee. He only tasted hot water.
Like so many people who have contracted the coronavirus, Mr Crippa lost the ability to smell – so intrinsic to the taste of food – and when it returned, it came back crooked.
Spoiled milk tasted fine. Sweet hints of vanilla caused a wave of disgust. Peaches tasted like basil.
An expert who could once describe the sea breeze and volcanic soil he detected in sips of a Sicilian white wine could now do little better than call it “cold.”
On a recent morning, Mr. Crippa, 32, in front of a group of similar Italians in the city of Piacenza in northern Italy.
They had gathered in a university lab equipped with aspirators to remove extra odors from the air, a place often used by professional tasters to evaluate the origin and quality of olive oils, coffee blends, grappas and chocolates.
But this group just wanted to taste something again and had asked Mr. Crippa for help.
“We must not give up,” he told them.
Mr. Crippa did not surrender, and his persistence paid off, at least somewhat.
He’s been training for months, with the help of sensory analysis experts who train winemakers and truffle hunters. Though he thinks he still has a long way to go before returning to his former incense, he has emerged in Italy as a symbol of gastronomic resilience – and of hope that the lingering effects of Covid-19 can be overcome.
For those who “share the same life turn,” as Mr. Crippa calls his illness, he has organized a therapy course with the help of the Tasters Research Center, a group of nutritional science professors who believe the sense of smell is linked to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in controlling emotions.
Like many doctors around the world who now recommend exercising at home, Mr. Crippa and his partners say that recalling a memory associated with a scent can help reactivate nerve pathways disrupted by the virus.
They started by organizing online training courses, posting tutorials and providing hours of personalized advice and pointers. National radio and TV programs have featured Mr. Crippa invited as a guest, and magazines have asked to share his 10-point guide to restoring the sense of smell and taste. He is also developing a recipe book for people who have lost their sense of taste or who have been horribly transformed by the virus.
As reports of his rehabilitation circulated in Italian newspapers, he received reports from hundreds of people who had also lost their scent, including a mortified pastry chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant and discouraged sommeliers.
“Reading these messages broke me in two,” said Mr. Crippa.
Like many food industry workers who lost their scent, he was initially reluctant to step into the limelight. “Exposing myself as the odorless gastronome was not pleasant,” he said, adding that while he was concerned about his reputation and career, there was “an enormous need to help these people.”
With both his condition and his efforts to help others now known, he said that chefs who recognize his name when he reserved a table surprised him with special dishes with strong flavors in the hope that he might enjoy something.
An aversion to faintness is what got Mr. Crippa into food in the first place.
He grew up eating regular pasta and mozzarella from the supermarket, while his father, a carpenter, and his mother, a school principal, worked long hours and showed little interest in food. As a 7-year-old on the beach, he put in his mouth a yellow datterino tomato, salty from the seawater, and the mix of sour, salty and sweet, he recalled, opened his senses to a new universe full of flavors.
He started preparing roasts and pastries for his family. At the age of 8, he tried 15 times – without success – to make a coconut souffle. Instead of posters of football players, the walls of his room were decorated with newspaper clippings ranking Italy’s top chefs.
At the age of 14, Mr. Crippa Luciano Tona, celebrated as a teacher of great chefs, who became his mentor and landed him a job as a helper in the kitchens of renowned restaurants. At the age of 22, he was the manager of the restaurant Antica Corte Pallavicina in northern Italy when it received its first Michelin star.
After graduating in gastronomic science from Slow Food University, he began a career as a consultant, critic and historian of cuisine.
“I was a super taster,” he said. “It’s something you’re born with.”
Until the coronavirus took it away.
“You sit at the table with your friends and eat a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce that doesn’t taste like anything,” said Mr. Crippa. “That dry, tired, flat, muted cardboard spaghetti plate is going to be emotionally debilitating.”
When even a fraction of his lost senses returned in September—when he caught a light coconut scent in his shower gel for the first time in months—it was so overpowering that he sobbed.
Part of his mission is not only to help people regain their sense of taste, but also to support people going through what he did.
“When it happened to me,” he said, “I felt all alone.”
To further assist those who contact him, Mr. Crippa often put them in touch with Arianna Di Stadio, a neuroscience professor who is experimenting with a treatment at the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome that shows good results in helping patients regain their sense of smell.
dr. Di Stadio said that Mr. Crippa’s gastronomic approach to the loss of scent was far from a guarantee of success. But bringing more attention to the problem, she added, could only help.
“I’m a scientist,” said Dr. Di Stadium. “He has an easier way of communicating.”
The group that signed up for its training sessions at the sensory lab at Piacenza’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart said the support Mr. Crippa offered was an essential part of the experience.
“When I discovered Michele, I felt safer and more understood,” said Martina Madaschi, 22, a workshop student who lost her sense of smell a year ago after contracting the virus in Bergamo, one of the hardest-hit cities in the world. . She now struggled to smell the almond extract in an unlabeled bottle placed under her nose.
Mr. Crippa knelt by Mrs. Madaschi and asked her to “remember the taste, the texture, the smell” of the nuts. She couldn’t. But then he handed her a bottle of mint and guided her past her memories of a summer night.
“Virgin mojito,” Mrs. Madaschi said, remembering the minty smell of the drink. “I would never have recognized it myself.”
Mr Crippa said such small moments of success boosted his commitment to helping others get back what he loves most.
“Do you have any idea,” he said, “how much I miss Barolo tastings?”