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Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Covid one. Smell and taste nil. Bring on texture.

About five days into our Covid-ridden self-isolation, The Husband and I congratulate ourselves that we’re continuing to survive on garden produce, store cupboard items and what’s in the fridge – we haven’t even run out of milk yet. However, none of this really matters as two key elements of life have gone missing in action.

We asked friends to drop by a copy of yesterday’s paper. It’s as if Rachel Roddy is mocking us in her taste and scent-infused column in Guardian Feast Issue No.189 about pizzette fritte – little fried pizzas. She writes:

Frying dough – like grating lemons, opening a new packet of coffee or cheese snacks, chopping herbs or grinding spices – is one of the great smells.’

Rachel’s right, of course, the smell of toast, grilled bacon, sweet blackberries, toasted nuts and seeds, all up there too: mmmmmmmm… but the simple truth is, Covid has taken our olfactory sense. We can’t smell anything. De nada. No taste either.

The first time I really noticed the lack, was after a particularly robust fart. I know we all think our own gassy expulsions are either fragrant or odourless, but I’ve lived long enough with mine to know that they are vicious incendiary devices. However, The Husband brushed close by without his customary ‘Oh!’. And so began the listing of all the things we could not smell or taste: that’s everything. A sort of never-ending no-smell I-Spy. When you’ve been banged up together for a week, you get your kicks where you can.

The Husband and I agree we can’t live on crisps and jelly tots. But what to do about our zero powers of taste and smell?

It is all very weird and quite distressing. But also interesting.

We still get taste groups: sweet, sour/bitter, heat (spice), salt, but that’s it. We can taste the bitter back taste of coffee but not the pleasing aromatic beany earthiness; we get the spicy punch of our Thai prawn curry but no hint of the sea or richness of coconut.

What is scary is that you can’t do the sniff test on on-the-brink items in the fridge. You also can’t smell burning (as The Husband discovered when he burnt his potato waffles – he’s working his way through his crime-buys from Iceland). The aroma of your cooking is absent as is the taste-as-you-go option – no matter the deliciousness of the ingredients.

Of course, we are by no means alone in our unhappy state – and it’s a salutary reminder that many are permanently without their sense of smell and/or taste. The eldest stepson suggests it’s a good year to release an unsatolfactory cookbook – and I’m sure there are clever people who are already on the case.

The Husband and I agree we can’t live on crisps and jelly tots. But what to do with our zero powers of taste and smell?

The juggernaut of cooking at least one recipe from Guardian Feast each week must keep rolling on. We decide our food should be as much about texture and intensity of the taste groups as possible.

My take on Yotam Ottolenghi’s peanut butter cornflake brittle: it’s all about the texture!

Yotam Ottolenghi’s peanut butter cornflake brittle has several things in its favour: it’s crunchy, sweet, salty and it’s a great use of the desultory pile of cornflakes left by the departing grandchildren last week. The only substitutions are desiccated coconut instead of flakes and salted peanuts instead of unsalted – but that’s probably a positive in the circumstances.

This is a cracking granola-esque snack which would be nice crumbled on your morning fruit and yoghurt. It’s got a great crunch and very satisfying mouthfeel. It certainly brightened up our bitter coffee water. Very easy to make and definitely one for the cupboard in future.

By yesterday (Saturday) evening, all I could think about was Rachel’s little fried pizzas. The very idea of them made my mouth water. They had to be made: we have basil coming out of our ears, four ripe tomatoes, parmesan and plenty of flour. Yes, it would use some of our dwindling milk supply, but needs must! I set to.

All that tomato, olive oil, garlic and basil, you know it’s going to be good. And even if you can’t smell the dough frying or taste the full nuances of flavour with Covid palate (no basil or garlic zing), these are satisfying, fun-to-make bites. Rachel says the dough usually only puffs on one side – not mine – dough balls of delight! After juggling the unctuous sauce onto the first few, The Husband devised a press-and-plop method which worked well.

A bit like making Japanese gyozas (which we’re very fond of doing), these little darlings are a communal effort – particularly the tearing off of plum-size pieces of dough, flattening them and the sauce distribution – oh, and eating them while they’re piping hot with a glass in hand. Student Daughter has already put in her order for them when she’s allowed back home. Bring it on!

Original recipes:

Yotam Ottolenghi – peanut butter cornflake brittle

Rachel Roddy – pizzette fritte

My take on Rachel Roddy's 'pizzette fritte' from Guardian Feast Issue No.189, August 2021.
My take on Rachel Roddy’s pizzette fritte – from her Guardian Feast column: Tales from an Italian kitchen

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