Autumn in the mountains is short. (In fact, all the seasons seem to be short except for winter, but that's another story.) Autumn also happens to be my favorite time of the year, for its crisp air which is a bliss after the dreadfully hot and humid summer, days of sunshine and blue skies that we can often expect during these months, and of course, the bounty of harvest.
And there is also the autumn foliage that we are so obsessed with in Japan, as we are with cherry blossoms. We anxiously wait for the trees to turn gradually into red and yellow, and go far and near to catch a sight of the pretty leaves.
|end of October, near our place; trees were still mostly green if little brittle
And here in the mountains at the heart of Nagano, this seems to happen all in a very short period of time; one week trees are still mostly green, and just a week or so later leaves have all fallen and everything is in brown. So it's really these magical few weeks from late October to early November, when the mountains glow in gradations of green, yellow, orange, red and brown, changing colors day by day.
I've spent rather a lot of my time in Nagano over the past few years, but I seem to have missed this short period every year - either because I was away or simply too occupied with other things in my life to stop and appreciate what's out there.
On the last weekend of October, we took a short drive to got to a small temple on a cliff by the river. You park your car at the bottom of the hill, from where you walk up along the rugged, steep path. Along the way you'll be greeted here and there by numerous small jizo guardians and statues of Buddhist Goddesses that are believed to watch over people who brave the short but challenging trail to visit the hilltop temple, which is known for a 13th-century wooden shrine.
A few days following that weekend, we went to another temple, this time close to our place. Mom had seen it the day before as she drove by there, and said it was looking good.
Yet another few days later over the first weekend of November, I took a short walk near our place. The trees that had been still greenish just a week or so earlier were now miraculously all orange - or more like brown.
But together, they paint the mountains in million shades of brownish orange, and that is nothing short of breathtaking, though for a very brief period of time.
Autumn in Nagano may be over, but I'm hardly done with autumn - at least not food-wise. There are still a lot of things we can enjoy for the tastes of autumn, preferably in a warm room though.
I have mentioned before, last-of-the-season figs and Japanese pears, new crop rice, new-season buckwheat soba noodles, mushrooms, walnuts... hang on, did I say five??)
Okay, chestnuts; I adore them. I like them sweet or savory, but mainly sweet. If you find yourself in Japan between September and November, you're likely to find a flood of chestnut sweets practically everywhere. One of the most popular is mont blanc, a dessert that consists of sweetened chestnut cream, whipped cream, and a meringue cookie (or cake), and there are a lot of Japanese sweets that feature sweetened chestnuts.
Last autumn, I had a chance to visit Obuse in Northern Nagano, which is known as a major producer of good chestnuts and for a variety of chestnut-based delicacies. I never managed to blog about the visit here, but I did write a post on my Japanese blog, where you can at least see some pictures of this pretty town.
|snaps from Obuse, October 2010
From my trip I brought home a whole lot of chestnut sweets (which can also be seen on my Japanese blog), and the downright best of all was kuri dorayaki from Sakurai Kansei-do. Now dorayaki, a traditional Japanese pancake sandwich, is usually filled with sweetened adzuki bean paste, which I hate. There are a lot of kuri dorayaki (which means chestnut dorayaki) around, but most are filled with adzuki bean paste and pieces of sweetened chestnuts, so these too are no-no for me.
Most of uri dorayaki sold by confectioners in Obuse, on the contrary, are filled with sweetened chestnut paste; without the adzuki bean paste, these dorayaki immediately won me over. We tried them from a few different shops, and all of us liked Sakurai Kansei-do's the best, for theirs was not too sweet and full of flavor of real chestnuts. I was so hooked I even ordered a boxful online right after our trip to Obuse.
They are available year around, but they start using new-season chestnuts from late October, and they are simply sublime that way. So I eagerly waited for them, and finally got my hands on them at the beginning of this month.
So one chilly afternoon in early November, I took out some of my favorite plates to serve the chestnut sweets, and opened up a bag of my favorite Kyoto green tea to go alongside.
Besides the kuri dorayaki, there was another thing that we all fell hard for on our visit to Obuse last year, and it was chestnut soft serve. The one we tried was from Chikufu-do, another confectioner based in Obuse, but others also offered one. Since it is impossible to take soft serve home, I tried to make something similar at home - not soft serve, but chestnut ice cream.
|chestnut ice cream, November 2010
I used sweetened chestnut puree that I'd brought back from the town, which happened to be also from Sakurai Kansei-do. And the ice cream may not look much, but it was seriously good - even rivaled the soft serve we had in Obuse.
It was simply a frozen mixture of the chestnut puree, some whipped cream and a dash of brandy and milk. It was clear that the key was the chestnut puree, made from chestnuts and sugar and nothing else. We liked it so much I ended up churning up the ice cream a few times last year. So I didn't think twice and added a couple jars to my shopping cart when I ordered the kuri dorayaki.
While I'm by all means making my kuri ice cream again, the weather has not exactly been ice cream-perfect as of late, so I've made something else for now. (I will be making ice cream in full-on winter when the room is heated nice and toasty.)
Another thing, also easy to make, but with a bit more layers of flavors:
this recipe, by omitting the eggs and sugar (in the cheese mixture), tripling the amount of chestnut puree, and adding shaved dark chocolate between the layers. I'm eating the last cup of this as I write this, and there is just one word to describe it: DIVINE.
So, those were some of the highlights of my autumn this year, so far...
Whatever colors you see through your windows now, I hope you are having a lovely autumn - and a happy weekend, too! -cxx