Nanaimo, a town on the northeast coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, is the birthplace of the Nanaimo bar, a chilled square crafted with layers of chocolate, buttercream, and a base made with ingredients like crushed Graham cracker, coconut, and almonds. In 1985, Nanaimo’s Mayor hosted a recipe contest that yielded an “official” version, but bakers make endless variations. Nanaimo bars have grown so popular that I’ve even seen versions in Los Angeles, piquing my interest. The city has grown so proud of their famed dessert that they’ve devised a 39-stop Nanaimo Bar Trail that identifies where to enjoy Nanaimo bars, along with variations in cheesecake, cupcake, cocktail, and ice cream form. On my drive from Victoria to Tofino, I made two stops, at Mon Petit Choux and Bocca Cafe, for research’s sake.
Gaetan Rousseau has run Mon Petit Choux, a bakery-cafe in downtown Nanaimo, for over a decade. The space houses a a two-tiered dining room with red floor, aqua banquette, and tantalizing pastry case. Stop 21 on the Nanaimo Bar Trail yielded a fairly classic Nanaimo Bar ($4.25) featuring a firm base of chocolate, cinnamon, rice krispies and almonds, a thick layer of fluffy snow-white vanilla buttercream, and a rich chocolate ganache topping.
Bocca Cafe has had the same owner for 20 years in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter. They sport plenty of ribbons on their cold case, including a nod as the best place to get a Nanaimo bar from the local Nanaimo News Bulletin.
A Bocca Cafe employee told me Nanaimo bar’s history, saying that Bird’s Custard sponsored a recipe contest. Nanaimo nuns apparently entered their bar and won the contest, so the Nanaimo bar was printed on the label, making it famous.
Bocca Cafe’s classic Nanaimo Bar ($4.25) was more compact than Mon Petit Choux, with a thin chocolate layer, a yellow buttercream center, and a crispy base crafted with chocolate, sliced almond, Graham cracker and coconut.
Bocca Cafe also sells Nanaimo bars that incorporate peanut butter and salted caramel (pictured). I tried the latter and feel the savory element did add another fun layer to the Nanaimo bar experience.
If you’re in the area, it’s well worth making at least one sweet stop on the Nanaimo Bar Trail.