Winter is always the humble chestnut's moment. You can get them hot in a paper bag on a corner in New York or outside the kabuki theater in Ginza. There are cones of marrons glacee in sweet shops, along with the standard montblanc dessert topped with chestnut puree. The Japanese and the French share a serious appreciation for the chestnut, along with, come to think about it, quality handbags and Jean Reno. The yummy marrons above were so creamy and sweet all the way through, but without the slightest stickiness. Table sugar! It makes these dun-colored little morsels sparkle like sugarplums in a storybook, without messing with the richness.
This is Japan's spin on things--a wagashi sweet made from roasted chestnut puree. Like its wagashi brethren, it's really down to the pure essence of the nut. You can see how the shape was made by pinching it in fabric to make the creases. Half the fun of these things for me is squinting at them and figuring out how they were formed. The top of this one was torched just a little to give it that charred flavor. Amazing contrast to the sweetness. Plus, I love those little mini-butane torches--it's like you're pulling a teeny-tiny bank job.
If John Galliano can't make homelessness fabulous, how can the rest of us even hope to look good drinking from a paper bag? And after a certain age, those red plastic cups just make you look like the house mother at the kegger. What to do? Once, on a Metro North train, my mother saw Spalding Gray open up up a briefcase, take out a cut crystal tumbler, and pour himself a scotch. A bit too far into dandy/lush territory, perhaps, but he had the right idea. Prettier cups, folks. They take outdoor drinking from the curb in front of the OTB to the rolling lawns of Tanglewood. Especially in Japan, a country where you can buy a One Cup pop-top sake on a train platform--should we drink so close to the train tracks?--an attractive container may be all that stands between you and the guy with the pull-cart covered in dirty stuffed animals.
Commemorative sake from Yoshitomo Nara's "A to Z" exhibition
Look at the sweet-as-hell Yoshitomo Nara cups above. Granted, it's a little creepy to package booze with cartoon children and puppies, but creepy is kind of his thing, right? Cute/threatening, pre-adolescent rebellion, etc.--it takes me back. Plus, I am biased since some of his images bear eerie resemblance to Mini Z...
Even ama-zake, a sweet, thick sake that's lovely in the winter, comes in the microwaveable glass pop-top! If you like hard cider, then this may be your sake. I once had it on a stroll through a plum orchard--there you are, enjoying seasonal blossoms, your cup steaming--I am about an inch away from joining the throngs of retired Japanese people who seem to be forever traveling to this or that garden in beige bucket hats.
These two from Hokkaido are killing me with their cuddly arctic labels. I especially like that the penguins are followed by a horde of tourists--because that would be me, captured for posterity in my bulky parka.. Why should beer and wine bottles have all the fun with cute labels? No need to be so serious, sake enthusiasts! After all, it is the traditional booze of the land that posts all those adorable cat videos on YouTube..