Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Nanaimo Bar

While planning a trip to Vancouver Island last summer, I made it one of my goals to find the quintessential Naniamo Bar. Naniamo is a town on Vancouver Island, about a 2 ½ hour drive north of Victoria; and, while there may be a pub or tavern in town called the Naniamo Bar, the REAL Naniamo Bar is a deliciously rich cookie confection with a coconut-graham cracker crust, custard filling, and chocolate topping. No one knows for certain how the cookie acquired this name, but the recipe first surfaced in 1952 in a local cookbook published by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Nanaimo Hospital under the name, Chocolate Slices. Later, this recipe was published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper where it was labeled Nanaimo Bars. Serious cookie scholars have subsequently traced its origin to Irma, Alberta, where it was known locally as Smog Bars or London Fog Bars.

Whatever the source, the cookie is now a Canadian institution. While there are many flavor variations and recipes, purists agree that the custard filling must be made from Bird’s Custard Powder, available only in the UK and Canada. If you live in the United States, you can substitute the powder with instant vanilla pudding mix and still come close to the original recipe.

Several Vancouver Island locals recommended the Old Country Market in Coombs, BC, as the best place for me to experience the absolute perfect Nanaimo Bar.

Coombs is a small town not far from Nanaimo and close to Parksville, off the main road to the West Coast of the island. Beginning as a simple produce stand some 40 years ago, the Old Country Market has evolved into a Whole Foods Grocery on steroids. There is still the selection of fresh local produce, but now they offer an amazing array of international cheeses, artisan breads, local smoked salmon, gourmet goodies, bakery items, imported gifts, tasteless souvenirs, and 69 flavors of ice cream. There’s a restaurant, antique store, and surf shop, but the main attraction is on the roof. The Norwegian owner planted a sod roof above the store and acquired a team of goats to do the necessary mowing.

Now it is known all around as the goats-on-the-roof place and is wildly popular. An entire community of galleries, studios, and gift shops has grown up around the store, making it one of the top tourist attractions on Vancouver Island.

And the Nanaimo Bar? It was very attractive and seemed close to the traditional recipe.

Unfortunately, it was far too sweet for my sweet tooth and I ended up giving half of it to one of the goats!

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