Nanaimo Bars and the Vancouver Island City of Nanaimo

Nanaimo bars are delicious treats that are said to have originated in the city of Nanaimo in British Columbia. They are triple-layer bars that are sweet, creamy, and— most importantly from my point of view—covered with chocolate. It’s easy for me to eat too many of them, so I don’t buy them very often. When I do put one in my mouth, I always savour the moment.

Traditionally, the bottom layer of the bars contains graham wafer crumbs, butter,  coconut, chopped almonds, cocoa, an egg, and sugar. The middle layer is a mixture of butter, custard powder, cream, and sugar. The bars are topped with butter mixed with melted chocolate. The bottom layer is cooked in a double boiler and then pressed into a pan and the other layers are spread on top. The bars must be chilled in order to become firm.

nanaimobars

These Nanaimo bars didn’t exist for very long after I photographed them.

Origin of the Bars

Nanaimo is a city on Vancouver Island. As the map on the homepage of this site shows, the island is located just off the coast of southern British Columbia. Victoria, the capital of BC, is also located on the island, but the city of Vancouver is located on the mainland.

The Nanaimo Museum has a copy of a 1953 cookbook containing the earliest confirmed recipe for Nanaimo bars. The book was written by Edith Adams. Hints that earlier forms of the dessert existed can be found in various places, though all of the ones that I’ve seen give a Canadian origin.

One claim is that the recipe was published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper earlier in 1953, where the bar was known as a London Fog Bar. Another is that the recipe was published even earlier in 1947 and later republished in the Nanaimo Hospital Women’s Auxiliary Cookbook in 1952. In 1954, the recipe for a similar treat known as Mabel’s Squares was published in the province of New Brunswick.

Nanaimo Bar Trail

The city of Nanaimo’s webpage about the bars (referenced below) contains a traditional recipe as well as a link to a Nanaimo bar trail brochure and map. The brochure shows businesses selling different versions of Nanaimo bars and related products and the map shows where to find them.

A visitor to the city can find gluten-free bars and Nanaimo bar ice cream, truffles, and cheesecake. Non-traditional flavours of the bars can also be found, including peanut butter, lime, raspberry, cranberry, and espresso. The only unusual version that I’ve tried is a mint version. It was nice, but I prefer the original type.

namaimo_aerial_4

Photo of Nanaimo, Newcastle Island, and Protection Island by Ken Walker, CC BY-SA 3.0 License

The City of Nanaimo

Nanaimo is located on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island and is a harbour city.  It’s a gateway to exploration of the island because ferries from mainland British Columbia travel to Nanaimo. The city can also be reached by air.

Nanaimo has attractions of its own in addition to being a place where ferries land. One of these attractions is the Bastion, an 1853 wooden tower where a cannon is fired at noon in summer. The tower belongs to the Nanaimo Museum, which is another interesting place to visit. The Bastion can be reached by travelling along the Harbourfront Walkway. The path is an enjoyable place to walk and to watch or photograph the activity in the harbour. The city also contains the Buttertubs Marsh, a 40 hectare (or an approximately 100 acre) bird sanctuary. It’s an interesting place to explore for people who enjoy observing nature.

In addition to the attractions mentioned above and the stores, restaurants, and cafes that would be expected, Nanaimo has other sites that are worth visiting. Two of these are Newcastle and Protection Islands, which are located not far from the harbour and are served by hourly ferry trips.

nanaimo_cityview

Photo of Nanaimo as seen from Newcastle Island by Shannon LaBelle, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Two Places to Observe Nature

A short ferry ride takes visitors to the Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. Vehicles aren’t allowed on the island. The island trails offer beautiful views of nature as well as historical sites linked to the indigenous people of the area. The Snuneymuxw First Nation of the Coast Salish people were the original inhabitants of Newcastle Island, which is known as Saysutshun in their language. Campsites are available on the island for people who would like to stay longer than a day.

Protection Island also has trails that allow visitors to explore beaches, forest, and nature and can be accessed by a short ferry trip (for pedestrians, not cars). The island contains Canada’s only registered floating pub, which also serves food. It’s the only place to buy food on the island, though I have read that the people who live on the island sometimes sell the fruit that they’ve grown in summer. Some people live on Protection Island all year and travel to Nanaimo for work, school, or shopping via the ferry or in their own boat or kayak. The inhabitants travel around the small island by walking, cycling, or using golf carts.

Gabriola Island

The stretch of water between Vancouver Island and the mainland is known as the Strait of Georgia. Many islands are located in the strait and are collectively referred to as the Gulf Islands. Visitors to Nanaimo who are willing to take a twenty-minute ferry trip could explore Gabriola Island. It’s much larger than Newcastle and Protection Islands and has its own shopping centres, restaurants, elementary school, and accommodations for visitors. It also has attractive beaches and forests to explore and is known for its arts and cultural events.

Nanaimo can be a good base for exploring the southeastern part of Vancouver Island. It’s also suitable as a temporary stopping point during a journey to more distant parts of the island. I think the city and its surroundings are worth exploring in their own right, though. Sampling Nanaimo bars in the city of their likely historical origin can be an enjoyable part of a visit.

References and Resources

The Legendary Nanaimo Bar from the Nanaimo city website (This site has a recipe for the bars.)

Tourism Nanaimo gives information about how to get to the city and where to stay

Growing Blood Vessel Organoids at UBC

An organoid is a small representation of an organ or other body structure created from stem cells in lab equipment. Organoids are very useful in medicine because they often enable scientists to make discoveries that are more likely to apply to our bodies than research in animals or in isolated human cells. In January 2019, University of British Columbia researchers made a significant announcement with respect to organoid production. They have been able to grow “perfect” human blood vessels in a lab dish.

intestinal_organoid (2)

Photo of an intestinal organoid created from stem cells by Meritxell Huch, CC BY 4.0 license

Organoid Facts

An organoid isn’t an exact replica of a real organ or body structure, but it has some of its features. It has a three-dimensional structure consisting of multiple cells. In some organelles, the cells are identical to each other. In others, multiple cell types that are found in the real organ are present and are arranged correctly. (Stem cells and their products have a wonderful ability to self-organize.) Despite these facts, an organoid generally doesn’t look like the real structure. This doesn’t appear to be the case for the newly created blood vessels, however.

An organoid has limitations. The real structures in our body aren’t isolated but interact with other parts of the body. Organoids are still useful with respect to the study of human health problems, however. Blood vessels could be an especially valuable creation because our organs are affected and affect each other via substances transported by blood.

Organelles can help researchers learn more about our biology and about changes during illnesses. If they are made from cells from a specific person, researchers can explore how particular medicines might behave when they are administered to the person’s real organ. It might one day be possible to use the cells in organelles to treat illnesses.

Stem Cells

Scientists are able to create organoids due to the special properties of stem cells. A stem cell is unspecialized but has the ability to make specialized ones by cell division. Stem cells which come from an embryo in the early stage of its development can make any cell type in the body. Adult or somatic stem cells are more limited and can make only certain types of specialized cells. Hematopoietic stem cells in red bone marrow can make the cell types found in blood, for example, but not other types.

Despite the more limited action of stem cells in our body than in the early embryo, they are very useful. Unfortunately, they aren’t active everywhere and can’t produce all of the structures in our body. Exploring the activity and stimulation of stem cells is a very active area of research.

Potency of Stem Cells

Stem cells exist as different types that have slightly different abilities, as described below.

Totipotent stem cells can become any cell in the body as well as those of the placenta. Only the zygote and the cells produced in the very early stage of embryo development are totipotent.

Pluripotent stem cells can produce any type of cell in the body, but not placental ones. They are present in the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, a-stage of embryonic development that forms a little after the stage described above.

Multipotent stem cells can produce several types of specialized cells, but not every type of cell in the body. Hematopoietic stem cells are multipotent.

Unipotent stem cells can produce only one type of specialized cell.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Embryos used in stem cell research are donated. As one might expect, obtaining pluripotent stem cells from blastocysts is sometimes controversial because the process of extracting the cells destroys the embryos. Scientists have discovered how to trigger certain cells in our body to become pluripotent, however. These induced pluripotent stem cells (also known as iPSCs or iPS cells) are often produced from skin or blood cells, which are easily obtained from a donor. The cells are genetically reprogrammed to cause them to become pluripotent. They may offer many medical benefits.

bloodvessels

Illustration of blood vessels by Kelvinsong and Begoon, CC BY-SA 3.0 License

Blood Vessel Organoids

The scientific report written by the UBC researchers was published in the Nature journal. The senior author of the report was Josef Penninger. In their abstract, the researchers say that they used pluripotent stem cells to create their blood vessels. I can’t read the article itself because it must be purchased. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) article in the “References” section below says that the stem cells used in the experiment were obtained from adults, not embryos. Therefore the researchers must have used induced pluripotent stem cells. It took them three years to find the correct “recipe” for creating the vessels, which sounds about right when cells are undergoing complex genetic modifications.

Unlike many organoids, the blood vessels created by the UBC scientists reportedly looked like the real thing. They weren’t actually perfect, as headlines claim, but they were closer to perfection than any other blood vessels that have been created from stem cells. Very significantly, when they were implanted into mice they developed into functioning blood vessels, including arteries and capillaries. Some of the transplanted vessels worked for as long as six months.

Potential Uses of the Organelles

The scientists plan to use their blood vessels to study changes that occur in type 1 diabetes and hopefully to find ways to help patients. The scientists say that one change in the disorder is a major thickening of the basement membrane in the blood vessels. This interferes with the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to cells.

In lab equipment, the researchers exposed the organoid vessels to the type of environment that is found in someone with diabetes. They found that the lining of the vessels thickened. They discovered one substance that improved the condition of the vessels in lab equipment and in diabetic mice and that hasn’t yet been used as a medicine in humans. The researchers hope to discover effective and safe medicines for many illnesses and perhaps one day to create vessels that can be transplanted into humans. It will be interesting to hear about what else they discover from experiments with their organoid.

References

Stem cell basics from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)

Organoid information from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Blood vessels from stem cells from the University of British Columbia

Scientists grow human blood vessels from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

Raccoons in British Columbia: Clever and Interesting Animals

Raccoons are interesting animals to observe. They are often nocturnal, which is the case for the animals in my neighbourhood. In some areas they are also active during the day, however, as shown in the Stanley Park photo below. I took the photo by a seating area in front of a concession stand. Food remains left by park visitors are a great temptation for raccoons.

Raccoons are considered to be clever creatures and are great climbers. I enjoy watching their antics. Readers may remember the case of the raccoon who climbed a Minnesota skyscraper in 2018. She was live-trapped on the roof of the building and released into a safe area. Unfortunately, raccoons are sometimes considered to be pests in my part of the world.

raccoon

A raccoon in Stanley Park

The scientific name of the raccoon is Procyon lotor. The Pacific northwest raccoon (my local form) is classified in a particular subspecies: Procyon lotor pacificus. It belongs to the family Procyonidae, which also includes coatis and kinkajous. The raccoon is the largest and bulkiest member of the family. Its name is sometimes spelled “racoon.” It’s native to North America but has been introduced to Europe and other parts of the world.

Raccoons have a distinctive appearance compared to other wildlife in my area. Its most noticeable features are the black mask over the eyes and face, the black rings on the tail, and the arched back. The hunched appearance is due to the fact that the hind legs are longer than the front one. The animal’s face is pointed. Its front paws are dexterous, enabling the raccoon to manipulate objects that it discovers.

raccoon-3933050_1920 (1)

A photo of raccoons by skeeze, CC0 public domain license

Raccoons are omnivores and eat a wide variety of food, depending on what they can find. They are adaptable animals that are found in many habitats, including forest, marshland, and urban areas. Most animals are inactive during winter, although they don’t enter a true hibernation. In cities, the animals may be active all year.

Racoons are known for dipping their food into any water nearby as though they are washing it. The behaviour isn’t completely understood. Some scientists have suggested that wetting the object improves the animal’s sense of touch and allows it to the examine the food better.

The animals have both a capable brain and a capable body. Though they can’t run very fast, they manipulate items with their front paws, climb trees easily, and descend head first. They are good swimmers. They can also stand on their hind legs, although they don’t seem to do this very often. They may perform the behaviour as a warning sign when humans get too close.

Raccoons generally mate in late winter or early spring in my area. Male raccoons are sometimes known as boars, females as sows, and youngsters as kits. Gestation lasts for around sixty to sixty-five days. Generally two to five kits are born in the spring or a little later in the year. The kits nurse for around two months and stay with their mother for a while after they are weaned. They sometimes remain with her until the next breeding season.

raccoon kit

Photo of a raccoon kit by edbo23, CC0 public domain license

Until a few years ago, I used to see raccoons travelling along my suburban road at night. Sometimes a family would climb on to the balcony of my home and play. Now I mostly see the animals during the day in Stanley Park.

The disappearance of the animals from my neighbourhood roughly corresponded with the time that the city issued garbage cans to residents for the weekly pick-up. Before this time we put out unprotected bags, which the local crows (and perhaps the raccoons) loved. I have heard of raccoons opening garbage cans and getting into them, but they don’t seem to have done this along my road. Containers with lids that raccoons can’t open are important.

Staying one step ahead of the animals and preventing them from finding food can be very helpful. It’s not unheard of for a raccoon to enter a home through a pet door in order to feed on cat or dog food. The door may need to be blocked to prevent this from happening. Farm birds should be housed in a secure enclosure so that raccoons can’t reach them. Any other food sources that are being raided should be removed or protected.

Raccoons use dens for both shelter and reproduction. Sites chosen for the dens include abandoned burrows created by other animals, hollow trees and logs, areas under rocks, barns, attics, chimneys, and crawl spaces under homes. Entrances to buildings used for human purposes should be blocked.

If an animal does become a problem, it would be good to find a pest controller that uses a humane method to remove it. Humane pest controllers that live-trap animals and move them far away and into the wild are available in many areas. It’s much better to prevent a problem than to solve one, however. A relocated raccoon may be successful in its new habitat, but it may not be. The animals have lived for as long as twenty years in captivity but may have a dramatically shorter lifespan in the wild. It would be nice to help them live as long as possible.