No one seems to know for sure who first pressed chocolatey crumbs to the bottom of a pan, before slathering on a creamy custard layer and then carefully spreading a rich, quick-to-harden chocolate layer on top, but David Hill-Turner is happy to keep it claimed by the city that bears its name.
Mr. Hill-Turner, curator of the Nanaimo Museum, has spent a lot of time researching the origins of the Nanaimo bar without finding anything conclusive.
“The origin is out there somewhere in someone’s memory, but I’m afraid it might be lost,” he said.
Mr. Hill-Turner said his sleuthing into the original bar hits a dead end at a 1952 recipe for what was then called a “chocolate square” in a book titled The Ladies Auxiliary to the Nanaimo General Hospital.
In 1953, Edith Adams’ Cook Book published what is believed to be the inaugural recipe. “That’s the first time we actually found it called a Nanaimo bar,” Mr. Hill-Turner said.
He said local women he’s spoken with recalled the dessert as a popular addition at social tea-gatherings of the 1940s and ’50s.
The original recipe calls for an English powder product called Bird’s Custard.
This has led Mr. Hill-Turner to believe that the dessert may have originated across the Atlantic.
Nonetheless, the City of Nanaimo touts the bar as its own, citing the dessert’s very name as clear evidence of its source.
In 1986, the city ran a four-week contest in search of the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe.
The winner was Joyce Hardcastle and her recipe can be found on the city’s website.
Nanaimo now offers visitors a self-guided tasting map that includes cocktails, coffees and cupcakes inspired by the municipal dish.
However, connoisseurs may want to hold off testing samples at each stop: A single Nanaimo bar packs about 290 calories.
Christine Beard, a baking and pastry chef instructor at Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, teaches students how to make the classic dessert.
“It’s a nice bar from a visual point of view because it’s got different layers,” Ms. Beard said. “It’s a pretty easy bar to make. It’s not very labour-intensive either.”
Although there are many variations of the bar – espresso, raspberry and mint, for instance – the institute teaches the classic custard version.
Ms. Beard, who is originally from Ontario, said she had her first Nanaimo bar on a ferry ride during a school trip to B.C. “It’s only foodies who remember moments about food from when they were in Grade 6,” she joked.
Since then, she’s seen other variations, including one in the U.S. made with butter cream instead of custard called a New York Slice, “but it’s not quite the same,” she said.
“It will always be a B.C. invention for me.”