Tasteless

I woke that morning with a dry throat and a rasping, grating thirst. Blinding heat flamed behind my eyes, sweat beaded my forehead. I clambered out of the balled-up bed sheets and stumbled to the bathroom. Turning on the cold tap, I immersed my head in the freezing water, then filled a glass. I swallowed the water down in greedy gulps, refilled the glass and drank again. Wiping my face on a clean towel, I examined my reflection in the misted mirror. Two bloodshot eyes in an angry, flushed face stared back. Searching the bathroom cabinet, I discovered a packet of paracetamol. I downed two tablets and finished another glass. A strange sensation coated my tongue; a sharpness I had never noticed before.

            Downstairs, I prepared a simple breakfast. Though my throat was painful, I felt ravenous. That was most unusual for me. Finding no enjoyment in food, meant I never craved it. Preparing a meal was a dull process; a necessary routine to avoid the inconvenience of dying. I put together a bowl of porridge, a mug of hot milk and a banana. Nutritious, healthy; the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain the workings of the body. It was insignificant whether the food was salty, or sweet, or spiced. I could squirt a dash of hot chilli sauce on the porridge if I chose; it would make no difference. Except, I did not buy hot chilli sauce, nor any other form of seasoning for that matter. Bland is fine when you cannot taste a thing.

            Doctors called it ageusia and they had no definite idea why I suffered. It was possibly due to a problem with signals from my taste buds not being received by receptors in my brain.  Born with the condition, I had no idea what porridge tasted like, or milk, or banana. Nor did I understand what everyone found so attractive about a cappuccino or why people raved on about chocolate. Food and drink were for me an essential, not something to desire. As long as I got my recommended daily allowances, it mattered very little what I ate. Most of the time, I just got on with it, lived my life as I had always known it, but I cannot pretend that it did not upset me sometimes. It gnawed away at the back of my mind; a jealous, niggling ache. I was missing out on a large part of what it meant to be a social human being. The pleasantry of meeting for lunch or supper held no thrill for me. The great obsession for cookery programmes passed me by. When I went out, everywhere I looked there were restaurants with people sitting; eating, talking and having a good time together. By any reckoning, I was abnormal, sidelined, ostracized. My disorder made me strange and different. Making friends was difficult. There was always the worry about whether I told a person, and if so, at what stage in the relationship. As a child, I could never join in with the excitements of choosing penny sweets, ice creams at the beach or birthday teas. Dating was hard work; taking a woman out for a meal, choosing wine or cooking a special dinner were impossible tasks that highlighted my weirdness.

            My throat still sore, I sipped the hot milk with care. I had to fill my grumbling stomach with something before heading off to work. My tongue continued to feel odd. It tingled as I swallowed but the rawness was soothed by the liquid, so I downed the whole mug. I decided I could manage some porridge and tried a spoonful. Once more, my tongue seemed to prickle almost as if it had a spirit of its own. The feeling was pleasurable and I finished the bowl.

            Work was the usual dull rigmarole; meetings, telephone calls, writing reports, updating records, interspersed with general pleasantries with other work colleagues. At about ten thirty, Maggie came across for a chat. She was a friendly, full-figured woman, some might say dumpy, with straight, mousey hair. Ordinary but not unattractive. I had often wondered if she harboured some hope of a romantic liaison with me. We were both single, after all. I was middle-aged, balding and skinny so I could not afford to be too fussy. Even so, I had never asked her out. It was all too embarrassing.

            “Hello Nigel,” she said, “Are you all right? I noticed you look a bit under the weather today.”

It was like Maggie to notice something like that. She was the sort who paid attention to what was going on around the place.

            “I have a sore throat,” I explained.

            “Oh dear,” Maggie sympathized, “Can I get you anything?”

            “No, no thanks. A hot drink at lunchtime will help, I’m sure.”

As I was busy, the rest of the morning passed quickly enough. For lunch, I decided to pop out to a café on the High Street; a popular place buzzing with chatter and steaming with crowded bodies. Workmates praised the delicious smells and savoury nuttiness of the artisan breads cooked on the premises. Of course, I could not experience these wonders. No sense of taste meant no sense of smell either; the two inextricably linked. I did enjoy the cosy, relaxed atmosphere, however, and the fact that the seating was arranged in private nooks where I could read my paper in relative peace.

            When you cannot taste your food, ordering meals is difficult. So much to choose from but nothing to guide you. At this particular café, I normally picked the first item chalked up on the blackboard. That lunchtime, it was Roast Tomato and Basil Soup with Goat’s Cheese Focaccia. It sounded nutritious. The plump waitress gave me a wooden spoon with the number eight penned on it and I settled myself at a table tucked away in a corner bay. I had a quick glance around at the happy faces, gorging and gulping down food in ecstasy, then buried my head in the newspaper.

            Service at the café was excellent, another reason I favoured it, so the soup arrived quickly. I dipped my spoon in the steaming bowl, good and hot to ease my throat, and took a careful mouthful. My tongue exploded like a firework in a tin can and I dropped the spoon, showering the table top with orange droplets. Something strange was happening. A tangy, zingy reaction was reaching into my sinuses, stretching up and buzzing in my brain. My synapses were working overtime; detecting, calculating and recalibrating. This…must be what it felt like to taste…to smell. This sensation, this sharpness in my mouth, must be the taste of tomatoes. This tickling, this stinging in the nose, must be the smell of the soup. I had read descriptions about how food tasted; family and friends had tried to explain the nuances. Now, I was actually experiencing it. My mind, my tongue, my nostrils were making connections with the words. My body felt like it was in overdrive. The flavours and aromas were overwhelming. I had never felt so alive, so excited. I finished the soup, savouring each spoonful. Then I nibbled the bread, taking delicate, slow bites, breathing in the scent, enjoying the itchy, savouriness of the cheese.

            When the meal was over, I sat looking upon my fellow diners with benevolence. Now I understood. I hurried back to the counter. I needed to experience more flavours but I was spoilt for choice. Everything seemed like a new possibility; a mysterious door to open. I decided on dark chocolate cake and a cappuccino. Finally, I would discover what all the fuss was about. The minutes waiting for my cake to arrive were filled with unbearable apprehension. My pulse beat vigorously in my chest. Saliva gathered in my mouth. When it arrived, again quickly because of the great service, I stuck my fork into the brown, crumbly cake and took a large chunk. Another explosion in my mouth. A rich, sticky sweetness filled my throat and travelled up my nasal passages. The clockwork of my brain hummed. My heart quickened then settled in a steady rhythm. A great wave of contentment washed over me. I sipped the cappuccino expectantly. This feeling in my mouth must be a roasted nuttiness.  I laughed out loud attracting the bewildered attention of three diners at the next table. It did not bother me; I felt delirious.

            Back at the office, I sat at my desk enraptured.

            “You’re looking much better, Nigel.” Maggie commented when she brought over some paperwork.

            “I am better. In fact, I feel on top of the world,” I replied. “Something wonderful has happened.”

            “Oh, my goodness, I’m so pleased for you.” Maggie said, giving me an encouraging smile.

            “Look…would you like to come out with me tonight…go for a meal…to celebrate?” The words surprised me but I was different now; confident and assured.

            “Oh, Nigel…that would be lovely.” Maggie looked flattered and I felt exhilarated; empowered.

We dined that night at the most expensive restaurant in town. Maggie looked delightful in a floral knee length dress that revealed shapely calves. To reflect my new-found exuberance, I wore my only patterned tie with a pale pink shirt purchased on the way home. I instructed the waiter to select for us the best meal and wine on the menu, as this was a special occasion.

            “What a treat!” Maggie enthused, “Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you. I hope you don’t mind me asking…what exactly are we celebrating?”

            “You are very welcome.” I replied, “Today, my life has changed unexpectedly for the better and I would like you to be part of that change. Today, for the first time ever, I have a sense of taste.”

            “Nigel, I’m so pleased for you. Do you mean that before today you couldn’t taste a thing? I never realized, you kept that quiet.”

            “It was a secret I hid from most people…one I bore with shame and regret. But now, things will be different. I feel like I have come alive. I want to start enjoying myself.”

We toasted this news with bubbling champagne. An aroma of spiced apples hit my senses. The dry, acidity fizzed in my throat ending in a subtle creamy flavour. 

            “So, this is champagne?” I said, “It really is like tasting stars.”

Maggie giggled, “I’ve never had expensive champagne before; it is delicious. The bubbles have gone to my head!”

Our starters arrived and we were rewarded with salty in the mouth salmon tartare, with a zesty lime and hot, peppery dressing. My heart began a fast, rhythmic beating. My tongue and nostrils prickled like static.

            “How are you finding it, Nigel? It has certainly put colour in your cheeks,” Maggie observed. She too had rosy patches growing on her face and beginning to travel down her neck.

            “It is amazing,” I said, “I never knew just what I’d been missing but I intend to catch up. Have some more champagne.” I refilled her glass to the top.

            “Cheers!” Maggie giggled again as we clinked glasses.

The waiter brought our main courses. I could smell the savoury, roasted flesh of the beef as he made his way down the aisle. It gathered in my nose, travelling up my nasal passages, sending wild signals to my brain. My mouth watered, my stomach clenched, in anticipation. As soon as the plates were on the table, I raised my knife and fork and tucked in. The meat was tender in my mouth, slightly metallic, like the blood I had tasted on my finger when I cut myself shaving getting ready that evening. The buttery, pungent Roquefort sauce coated my tongue and teeth thickly. I took a gulp of the spicy red wine; felt the burn of it in my nostrils. This was a kind of ecstasy.

            “It’s good, isn’t it?” Maggie said.

            “Good? It’s superb…it’s wonderful…the best thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.” I fought back tears of joy and gratitude.

            “I feel rather privileged to be sharing this with you, Nigel.”

            “I’m glad you are here to share it,” I said pouring out two more glasses of the dark, delicious red wine.

            “Oh, only a little for me…I’ll be falling over. I don’t often drink alcohol.” A splurge of red reached the edge of her neckline where her rounded cleavage began. There was movement in my trouser front as I watched her. Something was going on down there which I had never noticed before. I looked away quickly, took another swig of wine.

            “Time for dessert,” I said as the waiter approached.

            “I’m getting rather full…” Maggie said.

I still felt hungry, like I could eat everything all over again, “Don’t worry, I’ll finish yours if you can’t.”

The apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream was a divine concoction of acidity and sweetness. The pastry was buttery and crisp; it melted on the tongue. It had been a pleasurable evening. I had treated my newly discovered senses to an intense experience. I felt happy but this was only the beginning. There was plenty more to find out. I was not yet satiated.

The taxi dropped us outside Maggie’s modest semi. I paid the driver and walked her to the shadowy doorstep. She turned to face me.

            “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said.

            “My pleasure.” I put my arm around her waist and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She smelt of beef and wine. Her lips tasted sweet like the vanilla in our dessert. I pushed my tongue into her mouth searching for undiscovered flavours. I recognized the metallic tang of flesh. She pushed me away.

            “I’d better say goodnight, Nigel. I’ve had too much to drink.”

            “Of course.” My cheeks burned hot, “I’m sorry Maggie…I got carried away…exciting evening…hope I haven’t spoiled things.”

            “No…it’s all right. I’ll see you in work on Monday.”

“Would you…dine with me again tomorrow?” I asked shyly.

“I’d love to.” She unlocked her door, waved a brief goodnight and went in.

I walked the mile and a half back to my house in a blissful daze. Life was good. Food and drink had opened up a different world for me. The possibilities seemed endless. My stomach rumbled at the memory of the delicious meal we had enjoyed that evening. I bounced up the garden path and put my foot down with a crunch. I lifted my leg to see what I had trodden on. There under my shoe, flattened and sticky, was a squashed snail. I bent down, scraped it from the pavement and popped it in my mouth. It was moist and chewy. I rolled it around my cheeks savouring the gritty, soil-like flavour.

Over the next three months, I took my taste buds on a gastronomic tour of the world. Every restaurant in town was sampled: French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, Greek and Turkish. Maggie and I ate out three or four times a week. We even tried the American diner and the local fish and chip shop. I developed the vocabulary and lifestyle of a gourmet. Every flavoursome delight was categorized and filed in my brain. Every new eating experience awakened further the spirit that had lain dull within me.

            I bought cookery books, utensils, spices and herbs. Each night after work, I experimented with a different culinary style. My shelves were stocked with myriad teas and coffees. My wine rack filled with the finest, most expensive bottles. As my wallet got thinner, my girth widened. I had bought a whole wardrobe of clothes to express my new, confident personality. Gone were the grey suits, white shirts and dull ties. Instead, I wore bright chinos and colourful, open-necked shirts.

            My hunger never diminished. The more I experienced, the more I wanted. When my mind was not preoccupied with food and drink, it turned to my other obsession: sex. Passion ran through my veins like a full-bodied, red wine. I had discovered a libido that had been well-hidden for many years. I was invigorated, hopeful and randy. My relationship with Maggie had been going well. We had fun together and were good friends but it had not progressed as far as I would have liked. I was desperate to get her into my bed. Her birthday was coming up and I planned to cook her a meal that would ensure we ended up under the sheets.

            In the fridge and cupboards, I had stocked a feast for lovers. Only those foods with an aphrodisiac quality had been selected. To eat, I had chosen oysters, a salad of avocado, rocket, celery and pomegranate with a chilli dressing and a dessert of bananas, melon and figs with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. To drink, there would be Muscadet for the oysters, an excellent Merlot mulled with cinnamon and the finest Colombian coffee to finish. The meal was calculated to achieve maximum sexual outcome. It could not fail. To add to the romantic atmosphere, I had bought a red table cloth, napkins and candles and had ordered ten red roses to arrive on the day.

            On the evening of Maggie’s birthday, I spent hours lovingly preparing the meal and tableware. When everything was ready to my satisfaction, I went upstairs to bath, shave and dress. Waves of anticipation rolled over me as I studied my reflection in the mirror. The trousers were a getting a little tight but the coming meal was purposefully light and overall, I thought I looked pretty good. Noticing my cheeks were rather too red, I decided to go into the garden to stand in the cooling air. As I passed through the kitchen, I grabbed the bowl of peelings to take to the compost bin.

Outside, the sky was turning purple-grey and the fresh breeze was wet with drizzle. It was getting late; Maggie would be arriving shortly. It would be a relief as my empty stomach gnawed painfully. The lid of the compost bin came away with a sucking sound. I sniffed the fusty, rotten odour of slick vegetable waste. Fat, juicy worms squirmed amongst the decay. I snatched up a fistful and stuffed them into my mouth, chewing on the slimy flesh; enjoying the meaty flavour. Greedily, I gulped down a couple more fistfuls to keep me going until we ate. The chime of the doorbell sent me running inside to wash my hands and welcome Maggie.

She was surprisingly radiant in a gold jumper and black skirt.  I led her to the table and she smiled in admiration at the roses and candlelight.

“How romantic. Thank you, Nigel.”

She pecked me on the cheek and I helped her into her seat.

We had a wonderful meal; the conversation and laughter flowed as freely as the wine. After we had eaten, we sat close together on the sofa finishing our coffees. Maggie put her head on my shoulder and sighed. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I stroked her hair and lifted her face to mine. We kissed and I ran my hands over her body. She did not stop me but pressed her lips harder against mine and pushed her body closer. My heart began to beat faster. I pulled the jumper slowly over her head. Again, she did not stop me. I undid her bra. Her body was curved, soft and pink like a peach. I rubbed my nose over her breasts and breathed in. Her skin smelt of spice and musk. I dribbled with hungry desire. I kissed her hard on the mouth, nibbled at her lip, tasted iron on my tongue.

            “Ouch.” Maggie’s face was anxious in the flickering light. A drop of blood glistened on her lower lip. “You will be gentle, won’t you, Nigel?”

Saliva pooled in my mouth. My pulse pounded in my brain. My stomach lurched and grumbled. My loins throbbed.

            “I’m sorry Maggie. I can’t help myself. You taste delicious and I’m starving…”

I opened my mouth wide and sank my teeth deep into her sweet, bare flesh.

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Happy Halloween everyone!

Fermenting

During these strange times, I have been enjoying the art of fermentation. A traditional method of food preservation, it appeals to my belief in a simpler way of life. I enjoy the whole process: selecting fresh produce, cleaning, chopping, salting, massaging the leaves and packing the vegetables in the jar. It is relaxing and uncomplicated; my mind has time to unwind and think. While I ferment vegetables, I ferment ideas. Then comes the waiting: watching the bubbles start to rise, checking every few days for unwanted mould and tasting to see if it is pleasing to my palate. The smells as I unscrew the jar lid hit me full in the nose and carry through the house.

Fermentation has opened interesting doors for me. There is a whole world of fermented food out there waiting to be discovered. So far, I have made sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and giardineira from Italy. The last is my favourite, at the moment, with its delicious garlicky flavour. Many pleasant hours are spent searching the internet for new recipes. I have found an exuberant man called Brad who shares videos about fermenting on Youtube. His enthusiasm is catching and I like his often imperfect presentation without any artificial polish. It is good when things go wrong. It creates a feeling of humanity and camaraderie. It is because of Brad that I have my ‘fermentation station’.

Fermenting foods is great for the mind and the body. Not only is the process relaxing, the final produce is healthy, being full of good bacteria. Our bodies need this good bacteria for our digestive health. There is growing scientific evidence that gut bacteria play a role in many diseases too, including heart disease, cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Good bacteria can boost our immune systems and help us to fight disease. Other research has suggested that gut bacteria play a part in our mental health, so eating fermented foods may help to keep us happy.

Fermenting foods is a positive experience for me. Returning to old, clever ways, safe and busy in my kitchen, while the world outside goes off kilter.

Growing

There is something special about growing your own food. Gently planting a seed in rich, damp compost, waiting patiently for signs of green shoots pushing up through dark earth, planting out seedlings in neat rows of raked soil, watching the plants grow tall and vigorous, picking fresh vegetables for the evening meal, from garden to pot in minutes, is a kind of magic.

Sometimes, there are frustrations. Seeds rot in the ground, slugs feast on tender blooms, caterpillars attack glossy leaves, backs twinge, muscles ache, nails break and hands become dirt-ingrained, but it is satisfying work, good for body and mind. The clean air breathed in under wide skies, the smell of warm earth, the feel of fingers dug deep in crumbly dirt, the calming buzz of insects and soulful song of birds, the sense of well-being and pride growing brings. It is a connection with the land, a sustaining of life, something fundamental, something ancient.

Many of us have lost that connection, the opportunity to support ourselves, even in a small way, with home-grown food. If there were more gardens and growing spaces in our cities, towns and communities, we would be healthier and happier. Our diets are better, our appreciation of food far greater, when we grow it ourselves. Growing vegetables means being outside, exercising our bodies and working with purpose. The effort is rewarded with vegetables that taste wonderful, like nothing we can buy in supermarkets. Serving up Sunday lunch with three types of vegetables from your own garden is a feeling that is hard to beat.