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How a meal box taught me something about eating well after smell loss

Hint: it's not about being organic

I was walking in the cathedral precinct in Winchester last autumn and wandered past a stall from Riverford Organic, looking for some pumpkins to carve for Hallowe’en. I got into a conversation with the two people on the stand and went home with a box of vegetables, a pumpkin and a short term subscription for a weekly delivery of fruit and veg.

Several months on, I decided to try one of their meal boxes. I had not tried any meal box company before--first, I enjoy cooking myself and generally feel I don’t need that level of supervision in the kitchen! But now that I am so busy with AbScent, I really enjoy the idea that for one night a week, I don’t have to think about what’s for dinner. I just get the box out and get cooking.

What I noticed straight away was how much I enjoyed the food. Of course, my sense of food enjoyment is now very altered, and I appreciate food in all kinds of ways. The texture, the contrasting true-tastes, variation in temperature and mouthfeel. It’s also really important to me that the food looks good on the plate. White food on a white plate is an absolute no-no for me. So visual contrast is really important for me too.

One day, while looking down at my dinner from Riverford I realised what it was that made this food seem so good. The chefs who produce their recipes have inadvertently (or perhaps with intent?) hit on all the most important things about food that are meaningful to people with smell problems. These are some of the attributes of the menus I have had from them that really work for me. I’ll start with what I call true-taste balance:

  • Something savoury (salty)
  • Maybe a squeeze of lemon (sour)
  • Plenty of fresh herbs or greenery like rucola (sometimes bitter), or perhaps a bitter vegetable like broccoli
  • A dash of sweetness (maybe sweet potatoes, or raisins in a moroccan dish, or another fruit like pomegranate seeds)
  • Always–always–plenty of umami. Tamari sauce, soy, mushrooms, tomato, olives

Next up is the texture and mouthfeel:

  • Creaminess
  • Astringency (think orange or grapefruit slices)
  • Bitty-ness. Pine nuts, rice, couscous.
  • Bite. White fish has one kind of bite, a piece of steak has quite another.
  • Solid-ness. Panna cotta is one kind of solid, jelly is another. Both hold together but dissolve in different ways.
  • Crunchy. From nuts to crisps to popcorn, these things are dry in the mouth and yield to tooth and tongue differently.

Temperature

I love the combination of cold and warm together on the plate. Sliced oranges with a meat course, or a cool yogurt sauce with a hot curry.

Visual contrast and colour

I mentioned above that white food on a white plate doesn’t work for me. When I first worked this out, I started experimenting with dark plates and then coloured plates. I’m also a fan of coloured table cloths. Colour is also really important to me. Fresh ingredients with plenty of colour make my food more appealing. Whether in cookbooks or as with Riverford’s recipe boxes, good photography is an appetite inspirer–especially where the appetite is dulled by hyposmia or parosmia.

I think that having all these things is a sign of creative and good cooking. I called Riverford’s  press office the day after I had my eureka moment with a meal box, and explained my mission here in helping AbScent members come back to the table. They have been delighted to share a recipe and some photos to put onto this website.

I realise that Riverford is not for everyone, whether that is geographical or budget considerations, but I encourage anyone reading this to think about what goes into the recipe for fennel and raddicchio salad (click the orange button top right of this page) and see if you can’t find appeal in some of the attributes mentioned above. If nothing else, you will be challenged to think less about the simple flavour of the food when it goes into your mouth and more about all the other things that go into appreciating a meal.