The Cruising Chronicles: Part 13 (Nanaimo bar nirvana)

Marty served up my favorite treat for my birthday on our recent cruise.

For boaters, Nanaimo is known as a stopping-off point and a good place for provisioning, but a visit to the Vancouver Island city wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the delectable dessert bars it’s known for.

The Nanaimo bar has achieved almost cult-like status among Nanaimoans, who mobilized to have it elected Canada’s favorite confection in a 2006 National Post newspaper survey. The Nanaimo Museum has visitor seats made to look like giant bars and an exhibit devoted to the beloved confection.

I get the obsession. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but if there’s one confection I can’t resist it’s that heavenly trifecta consisting of a chocolate and coconut wafer topped by custard filling and a thin layer of chocolate on top. Proust can have his madeleines; give me the Nanaimo bar.

On our recent cruise, we left the boat behind and spent the better part of a day trekking across the city in search of the best Nanaimo bar we could find. Numerous bakeries and shops within walking distance of the waterfront serve up classic Nanaimo bars. Marty and I tried three versions and found them all good, though distinctly different.

The bar made by A Wee Cupcakery (407 Fitzwilliam St., in the city’s old quarter) was the sweetest, while the one from McLean’s Specialty Foods (426 Fitzwilliam St.) seemed the most classic, tasting exactly like the bars my mother has made every Christmas since I was a kid. The version made by Mon Petit Choux (120 Commercial St. downtown) was less sweet and filled with a lighter, almost mousse-like custard layer that I’m still thinking about days later. Though the least traditional of the three, it was my favorite.

Other establishments offer more unusual takes on the Nanaimo bar. The most unconventional of those was the deep-fried Nanaimo bar at the funky Pirate Chips (1 Commercial St.), which sounded like an abomination we had to try.

Deep-fried Nanaimo bars: inspiration or culinary abomination?

Served with ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was dipped in a thick batter and fried to a greasy, artery-clogging crisp. Marty liked it, but I thought the custard layer — in my view, the most critical element of a good Nanaimo bar — was lost in the mix.

I also sampled the Nanaimo bar ice cream at Tea on the Quay (90 Front St., on the boardwalk above the Boat Basin) and found it lacking the necessary coconut flavor.

Other takes on the classic dessert include a Nanaimo bar martini at the Modern Café (221 Commercial St., 250.754.5022), Nanaimo bar cheesecake at the Dinghy Dock Pub, and a Nanaimo bar sundae at Jakeob’s Ice Cream Parlour (306 Fitzwilliam St.).

I’d hoped to try the Nanaimo bar cupcakes at A Wee Cupcakery. Made of a crumb layer topped with chocolate butter cake, custard frosting and a wafer of dark chocolate, they sounded irresistible. Sadly, they didn’t have any the day I stopped by. Owner Medina Mayes said she usually makes the labor-intensive cupcakes once weekly but has long made Nanaimo bars, as did her mother and grandmother. So what, I asked her, is the secret to a good Nanaimo bar?

“The trick is using the best-quality ingredients,” Mayes said. “You cannot scrimp to save a buck or two, because it comes out in the flavor.”

Medina Mayes, owner of A Wee Cupcakery, sells Nanaimo bars and occasionally, Nanaimo bar cupcakes.

Another key, according to my mother — and which Mayes agreed with — is using Bird’s custard powder for the middle layer. The original custard powder, it’s widely considered by Nanaimo bar connoisseurs the only acceptable ingredient to use for the middle layer; some recipes call for vanilla pudding, which horrifies the purists.

While it seems clear that a good Nanaimo bar is far from good for you, its origins are hotly disputed. The invention of the bars has been attributed to housewives in Cowichan Bay, New Brunswick and Baltimore. Its first printing is equally mysterious, with various accounts crediting it to several different cookbooks published throughout the 1950s.

The official story, according to the city of Nanaimo museum, is that the first printing of the recipe was in a hospital women’s auxiliary cookbook from 1952. In an effort to get to the bottom of the issue, the city of Nanaimo issued the following plea on its website:

“If you actually own or know the whereabouts of a cookbook or other publication dating back to the early 50s or beyond, we would very much like to see it and put an end to all this confusion with documented proof.”

If stymied city leaders couldn’t conclusively put an end to the debate, they could at least identify the best Nanaimo bar around. In 1986, the city held a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe. Almost 100 different variations were submitted, and a woman named Joyce Hardcastle was declared the winner (her recipe can be found here).

Some have devised variations on the Nanaimo bar, with two popular takes involving mint- or mocha-flavored icing, and others using different types of crumb or chocolate. I’m not interested in trying any of them.

After all, why mess with perfection?

10 Responses to The Cruising Chronicles: Part 13 (Nanaimo bar nirvana)

  1. Modesta August 9, 2014 at 8:49 am #

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  3. Chelsea Barr September 10, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    Awesome story! I am always promoting the Nanaimo Bar Trail, great to see someone testing it out. The only thing you’ll have to add to your list is the Nanaimo Bar Martini at the Modern Cafe on Church Street. One of my personal favourites. I have also tried the Nanaimo Bar Cupcakes, they are worth returning to try. Cheers!

  4. Carolyn September 9, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Wonderful article Deborah! my mouth was watering at the description of those tasty bars.I feel the need to make a batch on my next baking spree!

  5. Bill Ray September 7, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Jan went to the Mon Petit Choux in June and it instantly went on her list for repeat visits. She went because it is operated by the same folks who run the Wesley Street Cafe, walking distance up the hill. Wesley Street is our favorite restaurant in Nanaimo for a gourmet lunch or dinner. Not cheap but well worth it; try lunch for a better deal.

    • Deborah Bach September 7, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

      Hi Bill. That’s right – the Wesley is the same people. Marty and I walked by it and wondered if it was good. Maybe we’ll try it next time. The Greek restaurant in the old quarter was also recommended by someone we spoke with.
      The desserts at Mon Petit Choux are to die for. I’m still thinking about their fig and creme fraiche tart. Oh my.

  6. Scott Wilson September 7, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    An extraordinarily timely post! I was just pulling into Nanaimo this morning wondering “Where can I find a review of the best places to get a Nanaimo bar here?” and, voila… here you are. Thanks! Off to the city again now to go try one or two off your list.

    • Deborah Bach September 7, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

      Excellent, Scott! Check out our Day Hook Nanaimo post for some other interesting things to see. Don’t miss Nanaimo Charts & Books. It’s an amazing store.
      Happy eating! Have a bar for me.

  7. Stuart Scadron-Wattles September 7, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Thanks, Deb. Almost as good as eating one myself.
    I should add that Ontarians, (who as you know, are most willing to take credit for anything Canadian), are firm supporters of the Nanaimo bar as iconic dessert from the Canadian Ontario matriarchy, and have myriad stories from the 50s of their own mothers’ recipes and takes on the confection. No party is complete without them, and so desperately does that lack loom, that even President’s Choice is an acceptable alternative to none at all.
    Thanks for the walk through the variations and history, and thanks to you and Marty for doing the hard investigative work and asking the tough questions on this piece. (Somebody really stretched for that deep-fried version.)

    • Deborah Bach September 7, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

      Stuart, that doesn’t surprise me. I went to university in Toronto and am well aware of the Ontarian center-of-the-universe (or at least Canada) mindset. One of my professors once made reference to Vancouver and then added, “…as if Vancouver is actually part of Canada.”
      New Yorkers have apparently also tried to take credit for Nanaimo bars, calling them “New York Squares.” The NERVE.
      Hey, we’re all about pounding the pavement for our readers. Anything for you guys. 🙂

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