Story Ideas

Bring your sweet tooth

Nanaimo Bar Trail serves up the delicious classic in many new ways

27 April 2011

Destination Nanaimo’s Chelsea Barr has the perfect last name and Twitter handle – @Nanaimo Barr – since she’s the local expert on this BC seaside city’s aptly named confectionary classic: the internationally known Nanaimo Bar. I’m meeting Chelsea downtown for a taste tour along the Nanaimo Bar Trail. Localbistros, bakeries and cafes show us how to kick the 1952 classic up a notch. 

We start at the Nanaimo Museum, keepers of the legendary Nanaimo Bar recipe, where you can ponder the treat’s origins sitting on a replica Nanaimo Bar bench. Some say Dutch settlers brought it here in the 1900s or that coal miners’ wives created it to go into care packages sent to their husbands underground. Most trace it, though, to a recipe in a 1952 Women’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook. All agree that the classic version starts with a bottom layer of cocoa, butter, eggs and sugar mixed with graham wafer crumbs, almonds and coconut, followed by vanilla custard, topped with a thin chocolate veneer.

With the basics under our hats, our next stop is Pirates Chips for what is, perhaps, the city’s most unconventional take on the original: a deep-fried version. Here, a hot melted Nanaimo Bar is encased in a cinnamon-hinted batter that tastes a little like the mini-doughnuts served each year at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition. It comes with a giant side of whipped cream. We share, since there’s a lot more to taste along the Trail. 
Next, we pull up stools at the bar at the Modern Cafe, where our server laces a freezing cold martini glass with strings of chocolate sauce, then shakes an ounce of vodka and crème de cacao with a shot of espresso and a splash of coconut syrup. Voilà, the Nanaimo Bar Martini looks just like the classic in a glass.

A two-minute walk and we’re ensconced at an ocean view table in Minnoz Restaurant in the Coast Bastion Inn where First Cook Andrew Cathers created the house recipe for Nanaimo Bar Cheesecake. While the crust is similar to the original recipe, Cathers has added butter and custard to a dense layer of New York-style cheesecake and topped it with a white and dark chocolate ganache. It comes in two lovely slices, garnished with a gooseberry.

By now, we’re completely full. It’s time to tackle part two of my tastings from the Nanaimo Bar Trail as takeaways. Here are some favourites:

With a custard layer as light as silk, the organic, less sweet version at Mon Petit Choux Café Bakery comes with the cafe’s initials monogrammed in chocolate on top made from gourmet pesticide-free cocoa. 

Try eating Nanaimo Bar cupcakes from the A Wee Cupcakery in one big vertical bite. That way you’ll get the full effect of the thick creamy icing made with Bird’s Custard, through to the chocolate cake and the traditional chewy base (minus the nuts).

Pastry Chef Sarah Wallbank likes the challenge of elevating classics like the Nanaimo Bar using high quality ingredients and “a few technical tricks.” Her spin-off adds pecans to the original recipe, along with a dash of amaretto liqueur, organic butter and sugar, plus black specks of vanilla pulp. You’ll find it at Nanaimo farmers’ markets, Markt Artisan Deli and Urban Beet.   

I suggest starting your own tasting on the Nanaimo Bar Trail with the classic version as the prototype. You’ll find the original in Nanaimo everywhere from grocery stores to coffee shops, including Perkins Coffee Co and at McLean’s Specialty Foods

More info: Tourism Nanaimo 

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