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Les Bagels de Montreal

The bagel has to be the most successful Jewish food in history, at least in terms of general public acceptance—especially in comparison to, say, gefilte fish. In fact, bagels have become so commonplace in the last couple of decades that my husband didn't even realize they were of Jewish origin. (Se...

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A St. Viateur bagel, courtesy of flickr user sifu_renka


The bagel has to be the most successful Jewish food in history, at least in terms of general public acceptance—especially in comparison to, say, gefilte fish. In fact, bagels have become so commonplace in the last couple of decades that my husband didn't even realize they were of Jewish origin. (See Amanda's post from 2008 for the history of the donut-shaped bread.)

And, although they are now everywhere, the place most associated with good bagels is New York City. Some New Yorkers might even say it is the only place with truly good bagels, though that is less true than it was a couple of decades ago. (Those gummy, insubstantial rings of white bread masquerading as bagels at many supermarkets, however, are another story.)

So I was a little surprised the first time I visited Montreal that this francophone Canadian city, 350 miles north of the Lower East Side, is also famous for its bagels—which are known in French as, well, bagels.

Oh, but a Montreal bagel is a different animal from its American frère, as I also discovered on that trip: thinner, with a hole big enough that you could wear it as a bracelet, and slightly sweet even when sprinkled with savory toppings—or "all dressed," as they call an everything bagel.

Photograph by Matt French.

Last weekend I visited Montreal again, and made a pilgrimage to one of the most famous Montreal bagel bakeries, Fairmount Bagel. According to the Fairmount Web site, the first bagel bakery in Montreal was opened in 1919 by Isadore Shlafman, the grandfather of the current owners. Here, the bagels are hand-rolled and baked in a wood-fired oven, giving them a nice crusty exterior that is similar to a well-toasted New York bagel. There is often a line at the open-24-hours bakery, which has no seating other than a bench on the sidewalk out front, but it's fun to watch the bagels being made while you wait. One guy cuts off dough from a suitcase-size heap, then rolls it into rings, while another pulls planks of finished bagels out of the oven by the half-dozen.

So which is the better bagel—New York's or Montreal's? It's hard to say that one is more authentic than the other, since both styles were brought by Eastern European immigrants to North America. As for my personal preference, I like that New York bagels are chewier and I don't really care for the slight sweetness of the Montreal bagel. On the other hand, some New York bagels can be too big and doughy for me to finish; Montreal bagels have more manageable proportions. And you can't beat that wood-fired crustiness. So my perfect bagel would probably use a New York-style dough recipe, with Montreal proportions and wood-fired oven.

As long as it isn't one of those squishy bread-aisle abominations, I won't complain.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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