Located on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, Nanaimo, B.C. is a verdant, broody kind of place; a typical Pacific coast town, washed out in foggy greys and steel ocean blues. But this misty city is also the namesake for what might just be the sunniest dessert square the world has ever produced: the Nanaimo bar, a soft layer of yellow custard sandwiched between rich chocolate ganache and a coconut-graham crust.
The first known recipe for Nanaimo bars appeared in the 1952 Women’s Auxiliary of the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook and was labelled “chocolate square.” One year later, a similar recipe was published in Vancouver’s Edith Adams’ Cookbook, this time going by the name “Nanaimo Bar.” These are the bar’s earliest known publications, but Nanaimo Museum interpretation curator Aimee Greenaway figures they’ve been around much longer.
“What’s always interesting with Nanaimo bars is the folklore,” she says. “You could get any number of different answers from people in Nanaimo if you ask them about the history of the Nanaimo bar.”
Greenaway particularly likes the stories from Nanaimo’s coal mining era. “Nanaimo was founded on coal — that’s really what developed it into a settlement,” she says. “The story was that families were sending Nanaimo bars on sailing ships from England to Nanaimo. That was kind of interesting, but we haven’t been able to find anything to back that up.”
Chelsea Barr, destination marketing officer with Tourism Nanaimo has heard similar tales. “You get stories all the time from grandmothers saying, ‘That was something my mom used to make me and it was in the lunchboxes of all the miners going into the mines,’” she says.
It’s certainly easy to imagine miners carrying Nanaimo bars to work, transporting sparks of custardy sunshine in the darkness of the mines. But neither Nanaimo’s historical miners nor current residents have an exclusive relationship with the dessert; over the last century, similar sweets have popped up across North America, going by names like “New York slice,” “London fog bar” and “prayer bar.” Still, when it comes to branding, Nanaimo is the winner, bar none. “Of course, we know that Nanaimo Bars originated in Nanaimo, or they would be called New York Bars, or New Brunswick Bars,” boasts the City of Nanaimo website.
The city has been instrumental in promoting the dessert. In 1986, then-mayor Graeme Roberts launched a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe. In the years since, winner Joyce Hardcastle has enjoyed promoting the B.C. treat, appearing in numerous newspaper stories and even starring in a segment of Pitchin’ In with Lynn Crawford. “It’s kind of like being a celebrity, but for one item,” she says. The secret to her prize-winning recipe? “I wouldn’t say secret, because I say it all the time, but the trick is to use unsalted butter,” says Hardcastle. “It makes the bars a bit more mellow.”
Nanaimo bars are easy to make at home, but travellers with a sense of adventure (and a high-tolerance for sugar) can check out the Nanaimo Bar Trail, where sweet adaptations and variations abound. Tasting options include deep-fried Nanaimo bars and Nanaimo bar cupcakes, lattes, fudge and martinis.
For tired feet, sore from pounding the trail all day, Kiyo salon offers a Nanaimo-bar themed pedicure. “It is amazing,” says Barr. “Your feet will smell like chocolate for the entire day.”
Want to try Joyce Hardcastle’s ultimate Nanaimo bar? Get the winning recipe here!