'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire' in downtown Asheville
During the holiday season, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” is a refrain heard as carolers gather in the street and over the loudspeakers in bustling malls.
So Swiss immigrant Sakshi Gantenbein was surprised at how few people in Asheville have experienced the delicacy.
“It's really interesting how many people know the song, ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ but never had a chestnut in their life,” he remarked.
The 72 year-old has roasted Italian chestnuts on the streets of Asheville for decades. He says the reason is simple: to make people happy.
“If I can make one person smile a day. That's it. You know, it's just nice,” he told BPR, as he roasted a batch in front of the French Broad Food Co-op on a brisk December afternoon.
True to the lyrics on the bright yellow banner that hangs at his stand, Gantenbein often plays the classic song on a speaker he keeps at his stand. He has dozens of versions of the song on a playlist, including iterations from Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Celine Dion.
From the end of October through the end of the year – the official chestnut season – Gantenbein parks two giant steel roasting barrels, along with tanks of propane, outside of the co-op on Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville.
On a near-daily basis, he roasts the nuts in batches, weighs them out on a metal scale, and wraps them in crisp white paper bags for customers. For $5, customers get a small bag and a demonstration from Gantenbein about how to eat them.
“You hold them,” he said, with a toasted and split open chestnut in between his fingers. “And then you push a little bit and they open up.”
Gantenbein describes the flavor as soft and creamy, much like sweet potato. He scores the chestnuts ahead of time with a knife so that, once roasted, it’s easy to pull out the soft interior of the chestnut from its tough shell.
“When you eat it, it’s creamy and then a little bit later in the back of your palette, something is happening,” he said, comparing the sensation to “a flower opening” in your mouth.
According to Gantenbein, he is the only person in Asheville who roasts chestnuts.
“For a while we had an Italian guy who did it too, but he passed, so I'm the only one,” he said.
“It’s not a job everyone can do. You have to be made for it,” he said. “It’s my passion.”
From Switzerland to Asheville
Gantenbein, a Swiss immigrant, first learned the craft in the early 1990s when living in Europe. After losing his job as a goldsmith, he had to find something else, he told BPR.
He saw a Swiss gentleman roasting chestnuts, and thought “Whoa, this could be something for me because, you know, I saw how happy people would get it and how they enjoy it,” he said.
Once Gantenbein learned the tricks of the trade, he started his own operation in Switzerland with a simple one-pan setup hooked up to a motorbike.
“I would go from village to village, and people had so much fun when I came, yelling ‘Aahhh, the chestnut man is coming.’”
Romance brought Gantenbein from Switzerland to the United States. Gantenbein’s wife was a Cleveland native, but the pair eventually settled on Asheville as a happy compromise.
“Asheville is very ‘arty.’ It has this creative energy that is around. And I have the feeling when you can dip into it, you’re in heaven,” he said, when asked why he chose to move here.
How to roast them at home
For those who want to try roasting their own chestnuts, Gantenbein said “it’s definitely easy to do.”
The most important part of the process is finding good quality nuts. “They have to be really solid,” he said. “If they’re mushy, don’t buy them at all.” It’s also better to buy the chestnuts at the beginning of the season, in early October, “because then you know they’re fresh and haven’t been laying around for a long time.”
Once you’ve got the nuts, score them horizontally with a knife on the round, curved side. The chestnuts can be tossed with oil (or not) and cooked in a dry pan over low heat for 10-15 minutes.
One can also roast the nuts in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 425 degrees. It’s recommended to shake the pan every 10 minutes for a more even roast.
Roasted chestnuts can also be a nice ingredient in soup, pasta, or baked goods, Gantenbein said. “You can do so many things with it… chestnuts are extremely healthy.”
Find Sakshi Gantenbein’s chestnut stand in front of French Broad Food Co-op at 90 Biltmore Ave., now through the beginning of January. Weather permitting, he roasts from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. every day except Tuesday and Thursday.