Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...
Few lyrics capture the holiday season like those famed words from Nat "King" Cole's 1946 "The Christmas Song." But in Colorado, that line gets a big "Bah, humbug" from local vendors.
"We do roasted almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts; that stuff goes over real well here," says Horst Schacht, who's overseeing the Christkindl Market at the Denver Pavilions this holiday season. "But you start roasting chestnuts, people will buy them, bite into them, and 85 percent will say, 'What the hell is this?' We stopped doing chestnuts almost ten years ago. Nobody eats them here."
Back in New York, Schacht couldn't cook chestnuts fast enough to meet consumer demand. Out here, though, folks may sing Cole's holiday chestnut -- but they don't eat it. "Isn't that weird?" he asks.
It's nuts. And somewhere up in Singer's Heaven, Cole and Mel Torme (who co-authored the song at the tender age of nineteen) are probably plenty roasted themselves over the situation.
Schacht wasn't the first to discover Colorado's nutty aversion. "Chestnuts don't sell well here," says Boyd Samuelson, who runs Oh Nuts, a Denver-based mobile nut-roasting service. "People have heard the song, so they try them, but they're not very well-received." As a result, he'll be roasting peanuts, almonds and pecans this season.
Chestnuts are as popular on the West Coast as they are back East, according to Chris Foster, an Oregon chestnut grower who's president of the Western Chestnut Growers Association. When it comes to culinary culture, though, "the West Coast has probably been ahead of Colorado," he says. He attributes this to lasting European influences along those shores -- and the fact that older chestnut trees brought to the West as saplings by immigrants survived a blight that wiped out much of the species in the East.
The chestnut's reputation has suffered from that blight. Many "bad chestnut experiences" have resulted from eating nuts from immature trees that shouldn't be part of the harvest, Foster says. These nuts lack the better taste of their mature counterparts. "One out of a thousand chestnut trees is worth cultivating," he adds. "People are bringing in trashy nuts from seedling trees."
Making matters worse is the fact that chestnuts require special handling, the sort given fruit rather than most nuts. Freshly harvested chestnuts should be stored at room temperature for five or six days to allow their carbohydrates to convert to sugar and bring out their flavors. Aging aids the oil and water contents of nuts, key factors to their good flavor. Without proper care, chestnuts taste mealy and bitter, and they often spoil or dry out in grocery-store bins. "They're like living embryos," Foster says.
(To find fresh nuts, Foster recommends visiting www.chestnutsonline.com and www.chestnuts.org. And to prepare them properly at home, he suggests scoring an X in each nut, then oven-roasting them at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. For a more old-school treat, roast them in the fashion of street-corner cookers, in a dry pan over medium heat for about fifteen minutes.)
But even good chestnuts are deadweight in Denver. Eight years ago, Schacht worked the Wildlights celebration at the Denver Zoo, where he set up shop alongside a chestnut vendor. Buyers would order nuts, he remembers, then taste them -- and spit them out onto the zoo grounds.
Professional roaster Jerry King spends about 150 days a year preparing nuts at fairs, festivals and trade shows; he'll be at Larimer Square this holiday season. Although he hasn't given up on chestnuts, "I've not been able to find chestnuts in the area to roast," King says. So he'll be cooking up peanuts, cashews and other nuts, and sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon. "I'll still have some cheer from them," he promises.
If Coloradans could get their mitts on good chestnuts, Foster thinks there might be hope for this state. Some of his nuts feature especially rich flavors, more buttery than stock supermarket nuts. One of his better breeds is a special hybrid named for the patron saint of chestnuts. "I have a variety called Holiday King," Foster says, "after Nat 'King' Cole."
For the next few weeks, that name -- as well as the words the singer made famous -- will continue to tease Schacht. At the Christkindl Market, he'll present a wealth of German edible traditions, from mulled wine, beer, brats and gingerbread to fresh-baked pastries. (The pastries are produced and "par-baked" in the Rhineland, then finished in Schacht's on-site ovens.) And his imported-from-Germany nut roasters will work magic with everything but the treats Cole crooned over.
"Chestnuts roasting over an open fire -- that's all great," Schacht says. "But if I set up, I'd sell them for the first couple days. Then all of a sudden, no one would touch me with a ten-foot pole. It's an acquired taste, but out here, they haven't acquired it.
"I can eat them by the ton," he continues. "But if you're trying to make any kind of money with them, you won't. There's no demand for them. Doing chestnuts is a lost cause."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.