Nanaimo bar gets Canada Post stamp, but critics question base-to-filling ratio

The Nanaimo bar, arguably B.C.’s most famous contribution to the pantheon of sweet treats, has received the stamp of approval from Canada Post.

The Crown corporation plans to release stamps of the West Coast confection and four other Canadian desserts from across the country next week.

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“Rich and chocolatey Nanaimo bars have been associated with their namesake Vancouver Island city since the no-bake recipe first appeared there in the 1950s,” Canada Post announced on its website in advance of the stamp set’s April 17 issue date.

But is it really a Nanaimo bar? Images of the eminently lickable stamp were released Thursday, and while all three layers of the classic dessert are accounted for — the crumbly base, the custard filling, and the chocolate ganache icing — many were quick to point out that the ratio is all wrong.

“These are awesome, although the Nanaimo bar ‘filling to crust’ proportions are off,” tweeted Nova Scotia author Tom Ryan, one of several Canadians to weigh in.

Toronto illustrator Tyler Clark Burke agreed. “Seems like the middle layer is too thick, and the bottom layer is too thin? The top layer is kind of weak too,” she said.

David Reevely, news editor at The Canadian Press’s Ottawa bureau, even suggested the filling looked more like peanut butter than custard — anathema to Nanaimo bar purists.

Even local politicians weighed in. “That is definitely NOT a Nanaimo bar,” said Port Coquitlam MLA and B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, while Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA and B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson speculated that the image was created by “an artist who has never eaten one.”

To get to the bottom of this delicious controversy, the Vancouver Sun reached out to Nanaimo resident Joyce Hardcastle, the winner of a 1986 competition to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe. If anybody is an authority on the famed three-layer dessert, which recently got its own spread in the New York Times, it’s Hardcastle, whose recipe is featured on the city of Nanaimo’s official website.

Prompted to assess the stamp, Hardcastle gasped, then agreed with the online commentary: Canada Post’s Nanaimo bar is almost baseless, but the criticism is not.

“The only comment I can make is that I don’t disagree,” said Hardcastle, before expounding on the proper ratio. “The two bottom layers are pretty equal. The top layer is a bit thinner. And it does look nicer than that.”

As evidence, Hardcastle provided Postmedia a picture of a fresh batch of Nanaimo bars that were chilling in her freezer, atop a tea towel sold in local shops, which also features her famous recipe.

Joyce Hardcastle’s Nanaimo bars
Joyce Hardcastle’s Nanaimo bars, with the correct filling to base ratio. - Courtesy of Julie and Joyce Hardcastle

This is what a traditional Nanaimo bar is supposed to look like. Canada Post’s rendition, meanwhile, more closely resembles Kraft Canada’s recipe for a layered Nanaimo bar cheesecake, which features the same troubling ratio. One wonders if the image is based on the wrong dessert entirely.

Ottawa pastry chef Adam Cenaiko offered his own expert opinion, further criticizing the stamp. “It’s missing the yellow colour in filling only found from custard powder, and yes, there’s way too much of it!” he said. “The bottom layer is suspicious as well. No chocolate or walnuts?”

The whole thing may seem like a small issue, but Canadians are passionate about their cultural treats. The Nanaimo bar is just one example.

“It’s similar to the deep passion people show over the raisins-or-no-raisins debate in Ontario for butter tarts,” said Dr. Lenore Newman, a Canada Research Chair at the University of the Fraser Valley who has written a book about Canadian food culture and cuisine. “But as the Nanaimo bar is built out of a no-bake cake recipe, the cake part really does need to be thicker. The one on the stamp doesn’t even look structurally sound!”

Either way, most Nanaimo residents are thrilled to see their custardy confection commemorated in a stamp, even if it’s a little too custardy.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog savoured the news when told Thursday.

“I couldn’t be prouder than to have the dessert recognized as one of Nanaimo’s many contributions to the world,” he said.

He credited the bar’s surge in popularity of late to its unparalleled taste.

“It’s popular because it’s really good,” he said, noting that Nanaimo bars were on the menu when then-U.S. president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, for a state dinner in 2016.

“It is a signature dessert for this country, up there with the famous butter tart and the other desserts,” Krog said. “I always say to everybody, whenever I’m at an event, if there’s Nanaimo bar, ‘Be patriotic. Eat some Nanaimo bar.’”

The City of Nanaimo’s website describes the bar’s history as “elusive” and “shrouded in mystery.”

“Of course, we know that Nanaimo bars originated in Nanaimo, or they would be called New York bars, or New Brunswick bars,” the site says.

— With files from Lindsay Kines, Times Colonist

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