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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Marzipan: Facts About a Traditional and Delicious Christmas Treat

A mini stollen purchased near my home

I’ve loved marzipan ever since I was a child. I think it’s delicious at any time of year, but especially so at Christmas time. A Christmas cake without a layer of marzipan under the icing (or frosting for North Americans) isn’t really a Christmas cake for me. Stollen is a loaf cake containing fruit and marzipan and is another traditional part of my family’s Christmas. Fortunately, I’m able to buy both of these cakes in stores near my home. Bars of chocolate-covered marzipan from Europe are available all year round in my nearest supermarket and are always tempting for me.

What Is Marzipan?

Marzipan is a soft and moldable solid. The main and sometimes only ingredients are skinned and ground almonds and sugar. The amount of oil released from the ground almonds is sometimes sufficient to act as a binder. Often another liquid is added to serve as the binder, however, such as egg white. For homemade marzipan, pasteurized egg whites can be bought in the refrigerated section of some supermarkets. Unpasteurized egg whites may not be safe to eat because of contamination by Salmonella bacteria. The addition of rose water (of the type intended for culinary use) is said to provide a lovely flavour.

Marzipan may sometimes be crumbly, but it can be pressed into a solid shape. It’s able to maintain this shape, but it will eventually dry out and harden. It needs to be stored in an airtight container if it’s not going to be used immediately. It should also be kept away from heat and light so that the almond oil doesn’t become rancid.

Marzipan seems to have first been popular in the Middle East and Europe. It may have originated in Turkey or Spain, or possibly in both of these places. Multiple theories attempt to explain the origin of the word “marzipan”. Its unknown which of these is correct.

A Covering for Cakes

Marzipan is popular at other times of year besides Christmas. It’s used as a covering for various types of cakes. The two that I’m most familiar with based on my British background are Battenberg and Simnel cakes.

A Battenberg cake is a rectangular sponge cake covered on all sides with marzipan. When it’s sliced, the checkerboard pattern of pink and yellow sponge joined together by jam becomes visible. The cake is said to have been named after the town of Battenberg in Germany. Another story says that it was named in honour of the marriage between Princess Victoria of Britain (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884.

If I want to buy a Battenberg cake, I need to go to a British food import shop located some distance away from my home. The journey is always worthwhile. I could make the cake myself, but I remember my not-very-successful effort in the distant past. The cake tasted fine, but the assembly of the different parts didn’t look very good. I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. Earlier Battenberg cakes had nine squares in the checkerboard pattern instead of the four that are created today.

A Simnel cake is associated with Easter. It’s a light fruit cake containing two layers of marzipan—one on the top and one in the middle. In addition, eleven marzipan balls are traditionally placed on the top of the cake. These represent Christ’s disciples, minus Judas Iscariot.

Confectionery

Marzipan is also used for creating edible sculptures and cake decorations. Food dyes are added to create colours and appropriate textures are applied with kitchen tools. Marzipan fruits, vegetables, flowers, animals, and other creations make interesting cake toppings. In some parts of Europe, marzipan fruit is sold on its own as a confectionery. It often has an impressively realistic appearance.

Almond Paste

Here in British Columbia I sometimes see almond paste for sale in stores, which I never saw when I lived in Britain a long time ago. The product has the consistency of marzipan, despite the name “paste”. Some sources say that almond paste is just another name for marzipan while others say that it contains a higher ratio of almonds to sugar. Some people have pointed out that although there are often differences between the two products when they are made by the same manufacturer, these differences aren’t consistent when comparing different brands. Whatever the product is called, I think a mixture of ground almonds and a sweetener of some kind is delicious. It’s a lovely addition to Christmas cakes and loaves.