Special Feature

CBC reporter tries her first persian in famous Thunder Bay bakery

“A persian?” I ask my coworkers in a story meeting my first week in Thunder Bay.

Everyone agrees, a persian is an initiation into Thunder Bay

Persian's in at Thunder Bay's Persian Man. (Jackie McKay)

"A persian?" I ask my coworkers in our daily meeting during my first week in Thunder Bay.

"Yeah it's like a cinnamon roll with fruit icing on top," someone replied.

I Google it on my phone and the photo of the pastry that pops up is underwhelming. I brought it up because it had won a TVO contestfor Ontario's signature foods. It beat out peameal bacon, the delicious all-Canadian breakfast meat, for first place.

"You gotta go try one," insisted CBC Thunder Bay's Executive Producer, Michael Dick. "Go try one and write a story about it."

Everyone agreed, it's an initiation into Thunder Bay, but I didn't see what all the fuss is about.

A week later I go to the Persian Man on Central Avenue to catch the lunch rush. I wanted to talk to people buying them to see if they share the same enthusiasm my colleagues do.

The lunch rush inside the Persian Man in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Jackie McKay)

There was a line-up out the door. I stood behind a young couple, Nathan and Vicky Maskery. They're new to the city, too but clearly not as new as me. They've had a persian before.

"It's like a cinnamon roll with pink awesomeness on top," said Nathan. He is now the 10th person to describe the persian like a cinnamon roll to me. "I don't know if it's strawberry or raspberry or mixed but it's just like this incredible taste."

I looked around the deli and most of the tables were full. Almost everyone is eating a wrap and several people have their pink topping treat on a napkin beside their tray. The deli is large and reminds of the kind of place you'd stop into on a road trip. I sensed that I was surrounded by Persian Man regulars. 

I approached two young men on their lunch break and ask them about the first time they tried a persian.

"Ten-years-old, Loch Lomond was my first persian," said Jeremy O'Connor. "Best day of my life."

He told me that he likes to takes his persian home with him so he can cut it in half, flip it inside out and fry it in a pan with butter.

I've heard enough. I want to get to the source. I want to talk to Danny Nucci.

The mixers at the Persian Man that are used to make over 1,200 persians per day. (Jackie McKay)

A woman behind the counter informed me to go outside and go into the office door on the far side of the building. There, I met Nucci's wife who took me into the back. Nucci was fixing a stack of plastic racks that's about as tall as I am. I learned that the equipment there is used to make over 1,200 persians per day, all sold here in Thunder Bay.

Nucci was everything I wanted him to be. I bet the shop has stayed relatively the same since he became partial owner of the Persian Man. A labour of love, like most family-run business are.

When I asked what makes the persian so good, he told me it's because it has never changed.

"You have the same goodness from years gone by," he said.

The persian was made in the 1940s by Art Bennett who owned a store in Port Arthur, Nucci continued. While there are persians with chocolate and blueberry icing, the original is still the best seller, he said.

"Do you keep the recipe locked away in a box?" I asked.

"I keep it locked away between my ears," Nucci replied. I expected this answer but I still like to think it's tucked away on the top shelf of a closet in the office.

I asked if the icing is strawberry or raspberry. He gives me nothing. I bet this isn't the first time someone has tried to coax the secrets of the persian out of him.

We then went to the front of the shop where a shelf of about a dozen persians were sitting pre-made. He handed me one on a napkin and I took a bite.
Danny Nucci, part owner of the Persian Man. (Jackie McKay)

Everyone is wrong: it's nothing like a cinnamon roll. It's more like a sugar doughnut dusted with cinnamon and the icing is so clearly raspberry. The little seeds in the icing crunch between your teeth as you bite down, like when you eat raspberry jam. Strawberry seeds just don't do that.

"It's not as sweet as I thought it would be," I told Nucci, who was waiting for my reaction.

"We have an ingredient that we put in there to cut some of the sweetness out," said Nucci. "Sometimes too sweet is just not good for you."

My guess is that the ingredient is sour cream and it's in the icing. I do like it, and I asked Nucci if he has ever met anyone who didn't like one?

"Far and few between," he replied.

Jackie McKay's first persian. (Jackie McKay)

After the lunch rush cooled off and most people cleared out of the restaurant — persian in-hand — I took another bite of the dense doughiness and the taste of the icing lingered in my mouth.

Then, I understood.

The pride felt by Thunder Bay residents for the persian is because the odd looking pastry is like a reflection of our city.

It's not particularly appetizing-looking and outsiders hesitate at the thought of it, but all you really need to do is take a bite to know that it's genuinely delicious.

CBC reporter Jackie McKay eating her first persian. (Jackie McKay)