Aspen Times Weekly: Sonic Seasonings |

Aspen Times Weekly: Sonic Seasonings

by Amanda Rae
Spicy Sax.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto


Benedict Music Tent

Aspen Music Festival and School

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Jazz Aspen Snowmass

Labor Day Experience

Sept. 4-6, Snowmass

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CRACKERS CRUNCHING. Birds chirping. Wrappers crinkling. Aspen leaves rustling. A cork popping followed by fizz as bubbly glug-glugs into a plastic cup. Excited chatter punctuated by laughter. Happy picnic sounds fill the air outside of the Benedict Music Tent, where scores of smiling patrons have settled on a Sunday evening with food and drink to enjoy alongside the Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) concert.

Contrast the sweet sounds of music here and onstage at the campus of the Aspen Music Festival and School with the din of grating, chipping cement as a jackhammer tears apart a sidewalk near a cluster of café tables at an eatery in town. Few diners sit here; more passersby grimace and scurry off in search of more pleasant places to lunch.

We all know that background noise can influence our enjoyment of a meal — as anyone who has suffered through dinner beside a loud talker or wailing baby will attest. But might food and wine seem to taste better when served alongside pleasant instrumentals as opposed to the same food set to a backdrop of screeching cacophony?

As it turns out, yes. Researchers at the University of Oxford in England have found a link between sounds and how we perceive taste, noting that high-frequency music — flutes, violins — enhance sweet and sour flavors in food, while low frequencies — trombones, tubas, rumbling bass lines — bring out bitterness.

Led by experimental psychologist Charles Spence, the study picks apart “multi-sensory food perception,” or how sound, like smell, plays an important role in the total experience of eating. In addition to discovering that a silky jazz groove will draw out tannic notes of espresso and chocolate, they also show that classical music has the ability to make diners perceive food as more expensive and that flavors fade more quickly on the tongue when sampled with fast-paced tunes.

As a result, Spence’s team is experimenting with “synesthetic sounds,” and how pairing music with food might enhance certain qualities in that food. “We’re able to show that we can change the experience in [the] mouth by about 5 or 10 percent,” Spence told NPR.

Though this study is new, the concept of pairing music with food has percolated for years. In 1997, acclaimed British chef Heston Blumenthal served a dish of seafood and pickled seaweed that arrived to the table with an iPod playing ocean sounds. The intention: to make the dish taste fresher in his restaurant, The Fat Duck, in the landlocked town of Bray, England.

Martin Oswald, chef-owner of Pyramid Bistro and Catering, understands this phenomenon well, having prepared elaborate feats in the VIP tents during JAS concerts at the Benedict Tent and in Snowmass for 15 years.

“Music does impact the perception of an event and the food,” says Oswald, conductor of a tight-knit crew of private chefs from across the valley. “And memory: When you listen to music and eat flavors that you remember from years ago. [Our job is] trying to match it up the best we can.”

The food itself doesn’t change — “sound waves don’t necessarily impact flavor profiles,” Oswald explains — but the experience of eating shifts. “Put cinnamon in there, and its still gonna taste like cinnamon no matter what the music sounds like,” he adds. “But memory recall will be triggered. It works really well together.”

Oswald considers style of music when planning a menu, which changes every evening. Cajun cuisine, such as jambalaya, might accompany New Orleans jazz. For a country jam, Oswald will smoke ribs, chicken, and brisket with all the fixins’.

“[Diners] want fresh, clean, light flavors in conjunction,” adds the chef, who will cater to some 2,000 people across five cooking stations in the VIP tents at the upcoming JAS Labor Day Experience in Snowmass. “It’s really about diversity: scallops, rabbit, barbecue, Asian flavors.”

When creating dishes, Oswald considers guests’ total sensory experience. So, to balance cochinita pibil — a classic Mexican dish of pork shoulder marinated in allspice, achiote and habanero chiles, lime, and orange juice, then slow-roasted overnight in banana leaves — he’ll create a sweet-and-sour garnish of grapefruit with spicy watercress.

Spence’s study notes how sound most affects our perception of texture: think crunchy crudités or snappy popcorn, and associating those noises with favorite snacks. Oswald recalls watching diners sample a dish of roasted leg of lamb topped with a watermelon-tomato salsa. “They think it’s just tomato, but the crunch of the watermelon [surprised people].”

Music also amps up the Pyramid Bistro staff. “To pump me up in the morning I get music going before service,” says Oswald, who blasted electronic beats in his kitchen this morning. “Right now we’re listening to salsa music. It’s energizing. It sets the mood for the kitchen crew.”

Tunes and food, sunshine and summer: all of these belong together.

Oswald admits he doesn’t notice sound check while prepping in the VIP tents before these concerts, he does enjoy an awesome bonus following hectic workdays that might span eight, 10, or even 18 hours.

“The beauty is that when the food service is over, I get to watch the whole [show],” Oswald marvels. “The job basically stops when the main band goes on — It’s a nice treat.”

Amanda Rae grew up picnicking at Tanglewood, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Lenox, Mass.

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