Category Archives: Things to do on Vancouver Island

When in Rome… Or Nanaimo…

One of the fun things about moving around a lot (three states and two countries in the last six years) has been discovering local food favorites.  For those that know me this should not be much of a surprise.  Food places make up most of my landmark references and anyone asking me how to get anywhere will likely be led by directions to make turns just past certain restaurants or food markets.  In fact, when travelling (abroad or domestically) I often try to find time to go to one of the local grocery stores.  I love to see what foods are unique to a place, and I can often find gifts for friends and family that travel well and are light weight.

 I have also found that when attempting to become a part of a community, one of the best ways of winning over the locals is to try (and try to recreate) one of the foods that is special or unique to that place.  When one of our best friends was doing fieldwork research in Illinois she stumbled upon the Horseshoe Sandwich.  The Horseshoe seems to be any sort of meat protein (ranging from shrimp to ground beef and anything in between) served open-faced on Texas toast (why this was in Illinois I have no idea), covered with a liberal coating of French Fries and a cheese sauce.

 When living in Indiana, the closest thing to a local dish we could find was the Tenderloin Sandwich.  This was sadly not as unique as the Horseshoe.  The Tenderloin consists of a thin slice of pork tenderloin that has been pounded, breaded and fried to within an inch of its life.  The finished product is more like cardboard than food.  The tenderloin is then served with a little mayonnaise on indifferent bread.  If you want iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomato on your sandwich then you order the “works.”

 Unfortunately I did not fare much better in Iowa.  I had some amazing food at the homes of friends and in some great restaurants, but what Iowans seem to be most proud of is “food” that can be fried on a stick.  This is found at just about any local community fair, but is produced in spades at the Iowa State Fair.  Famous for its mammoth butter sculpture of a cow, this year the fair’s website boasted 60 stick-bound food-ish items with new options appearing each year.  While living in Iowa they were proud to introduce fried butter on a stick, deep fried bacon, as well as fried pink lemonade.  Don’t ask.

 With the move to Vancouver Island I was initially focused on eating anything that swam in the ocean.  After five years of living in land-locked Midwestern states, I was all about celebrating fish especially salmon.  However, great salmon and seafood are not unique to Vancouver Island, but are hallmarks of the entire Northwest Coast of both Canada and the States (Please don’t call that nation “America” as that tends to get me in big trouble with my Canadian neighbors.  We do all live on the North American continent after all…).  My quest to find a special food that is unique to our new city led me to the Nanaimo Bar.

Little Man trying to score a nanaimo Bar

Little Man hoping to score a nanaimo Bar.

 For my State-side readers, “Nanaimo Bar” refers to a wonderfully rich dessert, not to the “bars in Nanaimo.”  While there is some debate about where the Nanaimo Bar originated (some try to claim them for the States.  Check out wikipedia for more details.), the bars are largely considered to be a local delicacy and are jealously celebrated as a part of local culture.  At its most basic rendition a Nanaimo Bar is a layered cookie with a chocolate and coconut graham cracker crust, a vanilla cream middle, and a top layer of chocolate.  There are numerous variations on this theme with people attempting to put their own spin on the bars with flavors that pair well with chocolate, like peanut butter, raspberry jam or espresso.  Nanaimo Bars have become so tied to local culture that there is a permanent exhibit in the Nanaimo Museum dedicated to this dessert.  The exhibit is flanked by two Nanaimo Bar-shaped stools for people to sit on and contemplate the displayed recipe and local lore.  Stools and recipe tea towels are available in the museum gift store.  The Nanaimo Tourism Council has even published a Nanaimo Bar Trail Guide that includes all things Nanaimo Bar, marking not only the best places in town to try one of the bars, but also themed pedicures, soaps, cupcakes, cocktails and the list goes on.

Pooh Bear enjoying the Nanaimo Bar exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum.

Pooh Bear enjoying the Nanaimo Bar exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum.

 I had heard of these bars before moving to Nanaimo, since Dave had tried a couple on the mainland (aka Vancouver).  They were almost always a disappointment, tasting only of intense sweetness.  Then when we first moved to Iowa we had a little party at our place where we served a number of dishes that were regional specialties from the different places that we had lived (Yes, Utica Tomato Pie was there as well, but that is fodder for a different post).  Dave prepared Nanaimo Bars as the party dessert, but these were different from those that I had sampled before.  While still rich and sweet, you could also taste the vanilla, almonds, chocolate and coconut in Dave’s version.  I was hooked.  He has since made them a couple of times, including most recently at this summer’s Hopwood Family Reunion.  The pictures of Dave making the bars (and Little Man trying to score one) come from that event.

 When Dave made the first batch in Iowa, he had done some internet research and combined multiple recipes to create his perfect Nanaimo Bar.  Then as I was doing a bit of internet research for this post I discovered that what he had created was incredibly similar to what is largely thought to be the most authentic Nanaimo Bar recipe.  In 1986 the city of Nanaimo hosted a contest for the Ultimate Nanaimo Bar and the winner was Joyce Hardcastle.  It is her version of the Nanaimo Bar that is the closest to what Dave put together as well.  Unknowingly Dave had stripped out away of the “unique” add-ins and found his way back to the classic version.

 As I mentioned above, Dave’s most recent reason for making Nanaimo Bars was as a special dessert for the recent Hopwood Family Reunion.  These are worlds away from the first bite of a Vancouver bakery’s Nanaimo Bar that I had on the mainland, and they will continue to be a part of special celebrations with our family.  Just remember that a little goes a long way.  A small square with good coffee or tea is a great dessert.  However, since we just had them this summer it is going to be a good couple of months before I want to have one anywhere near my vicinity.  One of Dave’s young cousins found out the dangers of Nanaimo Bar proximity at the reunion.  One night we were all up late playing a get-to-know-you-better game on the deck of the cabin.  A number of desserts had been brought out to munch on while we played.  One of the teenage cousins had the luck (good or bad) of having the plate of Nanaimo Bars sitting directly in front of him the entire night.  We lost count of how many bars he ate, but it was a substantial number.  So be warned, these things are good.

Chef Dave getting his ingredients for Nanaimo Bars.

Chef Dave getting his ingredients for Nanaimo Bars.

Dave’s Nanaimo Bars

Nanaimo Bars are famously three-layered cookies, with a graham cracker base, a custardy center and a chocolate top.  Dave’s version is intensely chocolaty with the added richness of coconut and almonds.  For the reunion Dave doubled the batch and therefore used a larger baking dish as is seen in the accompanying pictures.  A small square with a cup of black tea or coffee is divine.

 Ingredients

Cookie Base:

1 ¼ c. graham cracker crumbs

1 c. unsweetened flaked coconut

½ c. almonds, toasted and finely chopped

2/3 c. unsalted butter

1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ c. sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

Custard Filling:

2 c. powdered sugar

2 tbsp. vanilla pudding mix

3 scant tbsp. cream

½ c. unsalted butter, softened

Chocolate Topping:

8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (not chips)

4 tbsp. butter

 Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350º.

 Prepare an 8-inch square baking dish by buttering it and then lining it with parchment paper or aluminum foil.  Be sure to leave an inch or so of overlap on two sides to serve as a handle to help remove the bars once they are firm.

 Make the base:

In a large bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs, coconut and almonds.  Set this aside.

No rolling pin at hand, so Dave used the next best thing to crush the graham crackers.

No rolling pin at hand, so Dave used the next best thing to crush the graham crackers.

The combined graham cracker crumbs, coconut and finely chopped almonds.

The combined graham cracker crumbs, coconut and finely chopped almonds.

In a saucepan melt the butter with the cocoa powder and sugar.  Remove the pan from the heat and temper the beaten egg by adding a few spoonfuls of the hot chocolate mixture to the beaten egg and whisk like mad.  Tempering heats the egg gently so that it hopefully will not scramble when you add it to the mix.  Once you have beaten in the few spoonfuls of chocolate mixture to the egg, then pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the chocolate and again whisk like mad.  Pour the chocolate and egg mixture into the crumbs and stir until combined.

 

The sweetened cocoa and butter mixture for the cookie base.

The sweetened cocoa and butter mixture for the cookie base.

Tempering the eggs so that they do not scramble in the cookie base.

Tempering the eggs so that they do not scramble in the cookie base.

Dave showing off his smoothly tempered cocoa and egg mixture pouring into the graham cracker crumbs below.

Dave showing off his smoothly tempered cocoa and egg mixture pouring into the graham cracker crumbs below.

The combined cookie base mixture.

The combined cookie base mixture.

Pour the crumb mixture into the prepared baking dish and press it down evenly in the pan.  Bake the base in the 350º oven for 10 minutes and then cool it on a rack.

The baked cookie base is cooled here on an impromptu cooling rack of an upside down muffin tin.

The baked cookie base is cooled here on an impromptu cooling rack of an upside down muffin tin.

 Make the filling:

In a medium bowl add the powdered sugar and pudding mix.  Then stir in the cream and softened butter.  Beat until smooth.  Spread this over the cooled cookie base.

 Make the topping:

Using a double-boiler, or a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water, place the chocolate and butter over low heat and stir until both are melted and smooth.  Spread this evenly over the custard filling and refrigerate the baking dish until the chocolate topping is firm.

The completed but uncooled Nanaimo Bar pan.

The completed but uncooled Nanaimo Bar pan.

 Just before serving, take the dish out of the refrigerator and let it stand on the counter for 5-7 minutes so that the bars can be cut without shattering the chocolate.  Lift the bars from the baking dish by pulling up on the parchment or aluminum foil “handles.”  Peel the paper or foil from the bars and place them on a clean cutting board.  Cut the bars into 16 squares (4 cuts horizontally and 4 vertically) and place them on a serving plate.

For the reunion Dave made a double batch of the bars so the pan is larger than the one described in the recipe.

For the reunion Dave made a double batch of the bars so the pan is larger than the one described in the recipe.

Dave's Famous Nanaimo Bars... be careful if you sit too close to the serving plate.

Dave’s Famous Nanaimo Bars… be careful if you sit too close to the serving plate.

The bars can be stored in an air tight (and cousin-tight) container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks.

Click on the following link to open a separate page with the recipe for easier printing.

Nanaimo Bars

A Pooh Bear Needs Honey

In a previous post (Culture Shock) I wrote about the Immigrant Welcome Center, part of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Center (CVIMC).  That is where I was told that there was a name for everything that I had been experiencing in Canada, and that name is culture shock.  Doh!  I was also told that I am an “immigrant.”  Now how did that happen?  It shouldn’t be a shock.  I am in the process of “immigrating” to another country, I am not Canadian, I am an immigrant.  But I resisted that label.  I want to be home, where ever and whatever that is.  On the advice of the CVIMC staff I signed up for fieldtrips with the center in order to meet other immigrants and maybe make friends.  The first outing that CVIMC was doing was to a local honey farm, Fredrich’s Honey, in the nearby town of Cedar.  If you have any spare space for a late summer read, this is a good one.

 Not that we could have left the house without him, but particularly since Little Man and I were going to a honey farm we had to bring along Pooh Bear.  To keep him out of trouble, Pooh Bear waited in the car while we were learning about bees.  Before anyone tries to report me for animal endangerment, Pooh Bear is a teddy bear not an animal.  He is, however, almost “real” in the Velveteen Rabbit sort of way.  The important thing for our story is that I didn’t want Little Man or Pooh to get any ideas about balloons and little gray storm clouds.  I’ve learned from experience that Little Man has a good arm and can launch his teddies with surprising speed and accuracy.

Little Man and his tether.

Little Man and his tether.

 Partly because of the way the trip was structured and partly because I was preoccupied trying to keep Little Man out of trouble I didn’t have as much time to chat with my fellow immigrants as I would have liked, but I did start on the road to friendship or at least to having people recognize my face when I come by.  That was a good first step, and I’ll write more about this at another time.  In the meantime, let’s talk honey…

Visitors asking Margaret questions about bees, beekeeping and honey.

Visitors asking Margaret questions about bees, beekeeping and honey.

 The “farm” itself is mostly an occupied farm house with their Honey House shop located up the hill from their home.  For our “immigrant experience” we were met by Margaret Friedrich, a wonderful woman who is an immigrant from Ireland herself, though her experience in Canada began back in the 60s.  She and her husband, Theo, have been in the honey business ever since, and now her son and daughter-in-law are learning the ropes.  For anyone interested, Fredrich’s Honey also conducts workshops on beekeeping.  You can also read a bit about the ups and downs of urban beekeeping in a book I mentioned in a previous post by Novella Carpenter about urban farming in Oakland.  Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is an amazing story about her own experiences as a farmer in the middle of urban sprawl and ghetto as she raises pigs, all sorts of fowl, and yes, bees in a small midtown apartment.

An empty beehive.  It will be added in to the active hives if a swarm is found to fill it.

An empty beehive. It will be added in to the active hives if a swarm is found to fill it.

 Margaret is an amazing trove of bee-based knowledge.  Some of it I had heard or read about before, but other parts were new.  For the case of their “farm” the bees were currently up in the mountains since it is summer time and that is where the water is.  They will come back in the winter, stay through spring when everything blooms, and then make their move again.  I was a bit distracted by Little Man during much of Margaret’s presentation, but that was to be expected.  I had him on a short leash, literally.  Little Man has a much beloved tether that he wears when out and about in crowded outside areas, like large zoos, farmers markets and fairs.  People often laugh or scoff at the leash, but I do not care.  It keeps him safe, it keeps him with me, and he loves it.  So there!  J  Normally at a place like a small farm with so few people I wouldn’t use the leash, but in this case I wanted to keep Little Man a safe distance from any fascinating bee hives, or other things that a toddler should not be sticking his hands into.  Did I mention that Little Man likes to run around trees and get hopelessly tangled in his lion leash?  Yes… that was much of my morning.

Tools of the trade.  Little Man wanted the bee keepers hood in a bad way.

Tools of the trade. Little Man wanted the bee keepers hood in a bad way.

 The Honey House was admittedly my favorite part of the trip.  It is open year round, so anyone can come and purchase Fredrich’s honey and other bee-related products no matter what season.  I bought a lovely large jar of wildflower honey, and Little Man was given his own tiny jar of blackberry honey.  One of his and Pooh Bear’s favorite snacks is honey toast.  I will remind him of our visit to the farm each time he gets to bring out his little jar. 

Little Man inching his way towards and active hive.

Little Man inching his way towards an active hive.

 Fredrich’s Honey rotates in different types of honey throughout the year as different plants come into bloom.  Later this fall they will have a Fir Tree honey that I must go back to try.  I am a huge fan of tree syrups; maple is my favorite but Indiana’s Shag Bark Hickory syrup is a close second.  It is lighter in color than maple syrup, but is not as sweet and has a light smoky finish.  Always up for new tastes, I am excited to try a tree pollen-based honey.  I also want to call soon to see if they have any dandelion honey in stock.  This honey is not produced by their bees and they were out of stock when I visited, but woman at the Honey House described it as rich and dark, gotta try it!

Two younger visitors in front of the Honey House.

Two younger visitors in front of the Honey House.

 My final purchase from Fredrich’s Honey was a pair of two beeswax candles.  The scent was of warm honey and bees; not cloyingly sweet and definitely not artificial.  The candles smelled like what I want “home” to be.  Now I just need to find the box with my candle sticks in it so that I can enjoy that scent in the evenings while I write.  Maybe it’s in that large stack over under the stairs?  Oh bother…

Pooh Bear's dream... honey toast for life.

Pooh Bear’s dream… honey toast for life.

Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier and Harbourside Playdock

One part of making Nanaimo feel like home is finding new things to do with Little Man on the island.  We had our old haunts back in Iowa, many of which he still asks for like the Pella Library and the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.  There is no zoo on Vancouver Island, or at least I have not been able to find one, and while there is a library here the children’s section is rather sad.  Like everything else after a move we need to recreate special places to go.  For Little Man, one of these new places is the Harbourside Playdock and the area leading up to it.

 We first stumbled on the Harbourfront Walkway (or sea wall as we called it) just after we discovered that our bank cards were frozen for the 4th of July holiday in the States (see Two Independence Days post).  It was a gorgeous day and the wind from the ocean was whipping at Little Man’s curls with reckless abandon.  He tipped his face to the sky, chucked Pooh Bear over his shoulder and took off giggling down the quay.  We caught Pooh and then jogged along behind, smiling for what felt like the first time in days.  That is when we saw them.  Our mouths dropped open and our hearts sank.  Ice cream cones.  People walking with ice cream dripping down their chins.  People sitting on benches devouring what looked like the best ice cream in the world, and we had no money or hope of getting any until the holiday was over.  We briefly considered seeing if they would give us ice cream in exchange for Little Man washing dishes.  Oh bother!

 We walked along, plotting how we could get enough money to buy a couple of cones and debating if it really was a bad idea to spend the only $6.00 Canadian that we had.  Then we turned a corner on the walk way and found ourselves staring at the Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier.  The pier is a thin finger of a walkway jutting out into the Swy-A-Lana Harbour (yes, extra vowels in Canadian spelling), and walking on it makes you feel like you are suspended in the middle of the bay.  There are water planes and small inter-island ferries toodling about, and sometimes dragon boats as well.  For a moment, at least, the walking pier took our minds off of our ice cream dilemma.

The Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier

The Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier

 Dave kept a firm grip on Pooh Bear and I strapped Little Man back into his jogging stroller before entering the pier for fear that one or both would go for an impromptu swim.  This was NOT an unjustified precaution.  Just before we moved from Pella we had been walking with Little Man and his teddy Whisper the Fox in the central square of town.  At one side there is a large circular fountain surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence to keep people from splashing in its depths.  We got too close.  With an impressive arced shot Little Man lobbed Whisper up and over the fence and into the water that can only be described as quaintly foul.  It was not a nice athletic leap, but I quickly followed the fox over the fence and scooped her up from the slime.  Later after some serious spa time at home (aka washing machine) Whisper was declared safe for toddler loving again, and we learned to practice better vigilance with teddies and toys close to bodies of water (even as small as a glass of water or bowl of cereal… seriously).  We were determined that there would be no Pooh swimming or fishing from the Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier on that day.

Walking out onto the pier while keeping a death-grip on Pooh Bear

Walking out onto the pier while keeping a death-grip on Pooh Bear

 Walking out onto the pier we thought we saw people fishing in the harbour, but as we got closer it became evident that they had “fishing” line, but no poles.  Then we saw the small black cages attached to the line.  Apparently you do not fish from the pier, you catch crabs (is there a very form of crabbing?).  The bait of choice is chicken breast, and each cage/trap has a large, raw chicken breast attached to its side.  I just missed the Immigrant Welcome Center’s trip out to the pier where they explained the process of getting a crabbing license.  I’m tempted to look into this more, but I don’t think that myself or Little Man have the patience for it.  Maybe in a couple of years.  Can I bribe anyone to come visit for a freshly caught crab dinner?

Fresh crabs from the harbour, but they were too small and were tossed back by the 6 year old fisher/craber-man.

Fresh crabs from the harbour, but they were too small and were tossed back by the 6 year old fisher/craber-man.

 For Little Man the crabs are interesting, but he was most impressed when we visited the pier with his favorite Canadian Auntie.  While we were at the far end of the pier, a harbour seal came to visit.  She (the seal, not Erin) winked and flirted with us all as we took pictures like mad, but when the seal discovered that we did not have any fish she gave us up for a bad job.  Little Man still looks for her (since we all know there is only one seal in the ocean) each time we go out there.

Auntie Erin as seal paparazzi

Auntie Erin as seal paparazzi

“Seal” just before she realized we had no snacks

While the Swy-A-Lana Walking pier is great, it is relatively short lived.  As we retraced our steps off of the pier, Little Man let out a squeal of pure delight as he spotted a P-A-R-K.

Harbourside Playdock park in Nanaimo

Harbourside Playdock park in Nanaimo

The Harbourside Playdock is located just off of the pier, by the swimming lagoon.  The play area is designed like a series of “docks” leading to some of the main islands surrounding us, all within relatively short ferry rides.  Departure Bay, Gabriola Island, and Protection Island are just a few of the “docks” to play on.  Little Man loves the wavy docks leading between the play areas most, but the Protection Island and Gabriola Island slides are close seconds, as well as the swings.

Little Man taking off in the direction of "Gabriola Island"

Little Man taking off in the direction of “Gabriola Island”

The Galiano Island play dock

 

While the Harbourside Playdock park is fun, it is not as popular with the locals so is not the best option if you are a new “immigrant” and want to make friends.  Most of the people there seem to be tourists, all with cameras firmly in grasp (like myself).  To get to the parks where the locals go (and hopefully friends will be made), you need to go elsewhere.  That’s for a later post.

 For now, whenever we visit the Harbourside Playdock park (and that is relatively often since it is close to a great Lebanese restaurant for a takeout picnic) we often start or end our visit with a walk along the Swy-A-Lana Walking Pier.  And I always keep a good grip on Pooh or Whisper.  That water looks cold…

Little Man thinking pirate thoughts...

Little Man thinking pirate thoughts…

 P.S.  Even though we have walked along the sea wall (aka Harbourfront Walkway) numerous times, we still have not gotten our Ice cream fix.  The timing just has not worked out.  Either we are there too early for ice cream, or too late and the toddler-needing-a-nap meltdown has begun.  But we will get that ice cream… and soon…