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Just Canadian Desserts

A slightly squished Nanaimo bar
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
A slightly squished Nanaimo bar

I’ve always felt a sense of camaraderie towards our Canadian neighbors, though they’d be forgiven for not feeling the same about us. (Robin Williams once famously described Canada as an apartment over a meth lab.) But my affection was sealed when I sampled British Columbia’s iconic dessert – the Nanaimo bar -- on my current visit to Canada.

Perhaps a little backstory is required before describing this decadent treat. Braving both the Delta variant and Tropical Storm Henri, Monday morning my wife and I reported to the newly and nicely reimagined LaGuardia airport for a flight to visit our daughter Gracie on an island off Vancouver called Salt Spring. That’s approximately as far as you can travel from New York and still be on the same continent – 3,000 miles. Somewhat less as the crow flies.

But since we’re not crows we were forced to rely on the kindness of Air Canada and the Canadian government and that was no sure thing. If I were them I wouldn’t be cutting Americans any breaks either. It’s my sincere recollection that the United States, led by the likes of New York Senator Chuck Schumer was agitating for Canada to open its borders to Americans this summer. They did on August 9th but the U.S. still hasn’t returned the favor.

Traveling by air to our northern neighbor required passengers be fully vaccinated as well as test negative for the Covid virus within 72 hours of flying. Applause to WellNow Urgent Care in Hudson, NY for delivering our negative results within one day.

That left Tropical Storm Henri as the only remaining obstacle to reuniting with our daughter Gracie who we last saw, if you don’t count on Zoom, in January. She and her boyfriend Henry, not to be confused with the storm, or Gracie with Hurricane Grace simultaneously lashing Mexico, had moved to Salt Spring, an island where Henry’s family has a home.

Sampling the Nanaimo bar frankly wasn’t high on my list of priorities. Seeing Gracie and Henry was, as well as checking out their new life – meeting their friends, and experiencing Western Canada’s outsized version of nature.

I’ll admit that my introduction to my first Nanaimo bar might not have been entirely objective; my appetite ravenous and my taste buds, despite nineteen hours of travel, were in an unusually giddy state. Against all odds, we’d managed to make it across the continent and onto the evening’s last ferry to Salt Spring. The dessert was sitting, unprepossessingly, in a refrigerated case and seemed the logical coda to the cheeseburger, the day’s second, that I’d ordered at the ferry’s snack stand.

British Columbia takes pride in its ferries. They’re clean and comfortable and the food, while perhaps not deserving of a Michelin star, hits the spot after you’ve been traveling coming up on a full day and night. But that’s the thing about Nanaimo bars. It’s hard to imagine anything could go terribly wrong with them. Based on their ingredients alone they’re almost guaranteed success.

Requiring no baking and named after the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, the bar consists of three layers. The sturdy base is a nut and coconut crumb wafer. Next comes custard icing. And finally a sheet of chocolate ganache. In other words, it’s icing on top of cake on top of icing.

Concerned that the excitement of reuniting with Gracie might be clouding my judgment I felt obligated to have a second Nanaimo bar the next day, especially since Henry, a professional chef who had worked in upscale French restaurants, was mildly condescending towards the Nanaimo bars sold on the ferry and perhaps Nanaimo bars in general because of its borderline insane sweetness.

That’s where our palates apparently diverge. I’m not aware of ever encountering any dessert I found too sweet. My disappointment comes when something that advertises itself as dessert errs on the side of restraint. Desserts by definition should be unrestrained. If not, why bother? Why not just order coffee and ask for the check?

Day #2’s Nanaimo bar was even better than my ferryboat introduction to the confection. Speaking of restraint, it was all I could do to limit myself to buying two bars at Barb’s, a bakery on Salt Spring. They were charging $3.00 Canadian per bar (that’s $2.40 American and already a steal) but were offering six bars for fifteen bucks.

I knew that I’d never be able to consume that many even though we’re in Canada for eleven days; and also because Canadian Cadbury chocolates seem on par with their British counterparts and I have to save room for several of their Dairy Milks and Aero bars. Also, as a dessert connoisseur I feel obliged to test as many different chefs’ versions of the Nanaimo bar as I can short of coming home and having my doctor berate my glucose levels. So far they seem pretty consistent in terms of ingredients and texture but you can’t be sure until you’ve tried them all.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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