Bagels in the United States have become pretty run-of-the-mill. You can find them in nearly every grocery store and in many cafes. They tend to be heavy, often dry, and rather flavorless. Bagels that are true to their roots are freshly baked and chewy with just the right crispness on the outside, softness on the inside. They can be tough to find and many insist you can’t get great bagels outside of New York City. I’m here to say that Montreal, Quebec, has some of the best bagels on the planet.
Montreal-style bagels are a little different from their Yankee New York cousins. They’re smaller, denser, and a bit sweeter. And fresh out of a wood-fired oven, there’s nothing like them. They don’t need butter, cream cheese, or other schmear (spread). They have a smoky-crisp exterior and soft interior with just the right tooth.
Bagels came to Montreal like they did in New York with European Jewish immigrants, many from Poland and Russia. The differences in bagel-making style reflect regional preferences. There’s controversy about who baked the first bagel to Montreal, but many historians say it was Chaim (Hyman) Seligman. He sold his bagels on the streets of Montreal and later, partnered with Myer Lewkowicz and Jack Shlafman. Seligman and Lewkowicz founded the St. Viateur Bagel Shop in 1957 and Shlafman established Fairmount Bagel in 1919. Both businesses are still operating today. (Some insist the first bagel came to Montreal from Kiev, Russia, where Isidore Schlafman’s father ran a bakery.)
Hand made, Wood-fired
To uncover the secret of Montreal bagels, I travel to St. Viateur Bagel Shop in Montreal’s predominately Jewish Mile-End neighborhood. This is where St. Viateur started and it operates 24 hours a day seven days a week churning out 1,000 dozen bagels a day. (Fairmont Bagel, the bakery’s biggest rival, is located just down the street.)
When I open the door to St. Viateur, I’m enveloped in warmth from the wood-fired oven and the smells of malt, honey, and freshly baked dough. The shop is small and against the back wall there’s a cavernous oven with flames licking against the bricks. A man wields a long paddle, expertly loading bagels onto it and sliding them into the mouth of the oven. When the bagels are baked, he slips the paddle under them to pull them out and dumps them into a chute filled with freshly baked bagels.
Customers line up in front of this river of bagels, placing their orders. The counterman snatches just the right flavors—plain, sesame, poppy, onion, flax, cinnamon/raisin, rosemary and sea salt, multi-grain, or all dressed (with everything)—from the bagel chute and slides the warm bagels into paper bags for each customer.
Montreal bagels require a lot of hand work. To the left of the oven, a baker slices big ribbons of soft dough from a huge block. He rolls the bagels and then, with quick flick, shapes each dough piece of into a circle.
Then the bagels are boiled in a big pot of honey water, which sweetens them and makes the crust crisp. They’re drained and dipped in different toppings before the oven worker slides them onto the board and into the roaring oven.
The counterman hands me a poppy seed bagel, my favorite. It’s warm beneath my fingers and I tear off a small piece and pop it into my mouth. I’m transported to bagel nirvana. It’s fragrant, subtly sweet, chewy and absolutely delicious. Before I realize it, I’m eaten the whole thing and I’m scanning the pilke of fresh bagels for another, pausing just long enough to choose my next flavor. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor