By Sean Helmn, Tourism Nanaimo
The first time I heard about the Nanaimo Bar Trail, I thought to myself, “Oh, cool – a guide to bar hopping in Downtown Nanaimo.” And, although that would be a handy guide for those nights I just want to dance my heart out, this guide isn’t about Nanaimo’s night life. It’s about something much sweeter (pun intended!).
The Nanaimo Bar is a famous sweet treat known for its chocolate-y, cookie-graham base; its creamy, buttery custard centre; and its deliciously rich, chocolate finish. In fact, this treat is so popular among locals and visitors that Tourism Nanaimo created a brochure outlining 34 (!!) different participating businesses who all offer this tasty confectionery, or variation thereof.
Before I dive into the sugar rush-inducing list of Nanaimo Bar treats, here’s a bit of history behind the iconic Nanaimo Bar. I know what you may be thinking: “Does the Nanaimo Bar actually come from Nanaimo?!” Well, no one really knows the true origin story of the Nanaimo Bar. What we do know is that the first known published recipe showed up in a 1952 Auxiliary cookbook. At the time it was known simply as “Chocolate Square.” It wasn’t until 1953 when the first popular use of the name “Nanaimo Bar” was used in Edith Adam’s Cookbook. Then, in 1986, a baking contest was held where local Nanaimoite Joyce Hardcastle won the sought after title of best Nanaimo Bar recipe. To date, Joyce’s recipe remains the official Nanaimo Bar recipe!
OK, enough history lessons, let’s get to the good stuff. With 34 different stops on the Nanaimo Bar Trail, I’ve divvied them up by variation to show you just how many different kinds there are!
First, we must start with the traditional Nanaimo Bar! The classic Nanaimo Bar is made with a base consisting of chocolate graham wafers, coconut, and either almonds or walnuts (there is an ongoing debate about which is the traditional nut – the official recipe calls for almonds, however Nanaimo is chalk full of walnut trees!). The middle layer uses Bird’s Custard for that sweet, vanilla cream, and solid chocolate tops it all off! There are seven different participating businesses that offer this classic variation: A Wee Cupcakery, Javawocky Coffee House, McLean’s Specialty Foods, Perkins Coffee Company, and Serious Coffee (Downtown and Hammond Bay locations). If you’re looking for the quintessential, classic, iconic treat, these are your top spots.
For a twist on the traditional – yet still adventurous – head to Bocca Café, Java Expressions, Ohana’s Café, Riso Foods Inc, or Yellow Point Cranberries where you can try any variation under the sun from peanut butter to lime to cranberry!
Cakes, Cones & Chocolates
From cupcake to cheesecake, the Nanaimo Bar is well represented among this dessert style! Real Food Fast makes the one-of-a-kind Nanaimo Bar Cake (that’s not too sweet!). For a quick bite, pop in to A Wee Cupcakery for the Nanaimo Bar cupcake! This treat uses the traditional (although nut-free) Nanaimo Bar base layer underneath its deliciously decadent Dutch cocoa cupcake. Bird’s custard buttercream frosting tops this delight.
If cheesecake is your choice dessert, check out Minnoz Steak & Seafood or Longwood Brew Pub to satisfy your craving. You’ll swoon once that dense cheesecake, combined with that iconic taste, hits your lips. Simply mouth-watering!
Summer is made for ice cream, and these following treats offer a twist on the traditional Nanaimo Bar! Jakeob’s Ice Cream Parlour serves up a delectable Nanaimo Bar Sundae while Two Chefs Affair is known for their truly tasty Nanaimo Bar Ice Cream Sandwich. Lastly, Living Forest Campground has created the Nanaimo Bar Milkshake – available in the summer months only, it’s the perfect way to cool down on a hot summer’s day!
Don’t have a sweet tooth, but still want a little something to satiate your curiosity? Try Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s handcrafted Nanaimo Bar Fudge for a bite-size treat! If chocolate is your kryptonite, look no further than Cherub Chocolate and Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut!
Perhaps, like me, you
hoped thought the Nanaimo Bar Trail featured some of Nanaimo’s best bars and lounges. Well, these next places on the list offer the best of both worlds – Nanaimo Bar cocktails! Head downtown to ACME Food Co., Modern Café, or the Grand Hotel to try any of their delicious Nanaimo Bar-themed beverages. If you’d like to try a non-alcoholic interpretation of the Nanaimo Bar, Tea Desire makes a hot and cold Nanaimo Bar Tea Latte.
The Unusual & Unexpected
Serious foodies and adventurous eaters: you’ll want to check out some of these unusual, unexpected, but downright tasty twists! CJ’s Nanaimo Bar Cinnamon Bun is not your average cinnamon bun, while Pirate Chips offers a deep-fried version of the Traditional Nanaimo Bar! Noodlebox offers a Nanaimo Bar Spring Roll while Smokin’ George’s makes a bacon-topped Nanaimo Bar! So rich, so salty, so sweet – and I mean, come on… bacon. Need I say more?
Powerhouse Living Foods Co. and Mon Petit Choux have created healthier, dietary-friendly options for those who can’t enjoy the traditional Nanaimo Bar. Powerhouse Foods offers a “Raw, Organic Vegan & Gluten Free Nanaimo Bar” while Mon Petit Choux serves up a delicious gourmet and gluten-free Nanaimo Bar.
Of course, if you don’t have that much of a sweet tooth but still want to enjoy the Nanaimo Bar, you can visit a number of places who offer non-edible options! For example, Kiyo Salon & Day Spa offers a heavenly Nanaimo Bar-themed pedicure! If you’re looking for a souvenir, stop in at Tourism Nanaimo’s Visitor Centre and pick up one of the Nanaimo Bar Tea Towels featuring Joyce’s original Nanaimo Bar recipe. They also carry Nanaimo Bar postcards!
For more about the Nanaimo Bar history, stop by the Nanaimo Museum to see their exhibit, complete with Nanaimo Bar stools!
Well, that (finally) wraps up this mouth-watering post on the Nanaimo Bar Trail. You can find the Nanaimo Bar Trail brochure at any of Tourism Nanaimo’s Visitor Centres, or at any of the participating businesses. You can also check out the guide online from your computer or smartphone!
And, if you can’t make it to Nanaimo to try this sweet treat, you can make it at home using the official Nanaimo Bar recipe, or visit the Tourism Nanaimo blog as I, along with my co-worker Sarah, explore the trail, bit(e) by bit(e)!
Have you tried any of the Nanaimo Bars on this list? Which was your favourite? Which bar do you want to try next? Let us know in the comments below!