It's chestnut season in the mountains north of Nagoya. Back home in California, I knew chestnuts were things that other people roasted over an open fire at Christmas. I knew that because I heard about it from Nat King Cole. I wonder if the Coles roasted chestnuts. In France they roasted Marrons, if they roasted anything, because marron is French for chestnut. I never knew when I lived in the U.S., because the only French food I ate was toast. So the first time I heard a chestnut called a marron I was in Japan. So, naturally, I thought "marron" was Japanese for chestnut. Imagine my confusion when the Japanese I spoke to asked me if marron was English. "Of course not!" I would say. "It's Japanese."
But it's not Japanese. It's French. The Japanese word is Kuri. Once I finally got to the bottom of all this, I was able to move ahead on my quest for the perfect kuri ice cream. It didn't take long to find. Just last year at this same time, in the height of kuri season in these same mountains north of Nagoya, I found it. It's not where you'd expect to find delicious ice cream though. That is unless you're Japanese, or a truck driver - or definitely a Japanese truck driver.
Here's how I found the world's most delicious kuri ice cream. I was driving south, toward Nagoya from the peaks of Nagano on the Chuo Expressway, when I just couldn't hold it any longer. I pulled into a service area called Ena Kyo. After taking care of the more urgent business I relaxed in front of the convenience store sipping a Starbucks, when a giant plastic soft ice cream cone met my gaze. These ice cream cones are all over Japan inviting ice cream lovers like myself to belly up and sample the local flavors. But in a service area? What could be special about that?
Well in chestnut season magic happens everyday, and 3oo yen lighter I found myself in the parking lot of that service area, a kuri soft cream slowly melting in my fist. It was unbelievable. A taste sent directly from the chestnut Gods, never meant to be eaten by an earthly being, yet, due to some cosmic marketing glitch, I held the junk food of the Gods in my mortal hand. If anything guarantees immortality it was that Kuri ice cream. The thought of leaving my tongue and taste buds in a lifeless body and ascending to the heavens offers no appeal when such a taste exists on this earth. And such a taste does exist, but only here in the Ena Kyo service area southbound side of the Chuo freeway, in a little stand between the toilets and the Family Mart.