When I travel, like many who belong to my young urban and inquisitive generation, I am on the quest for the “authentic” local experience. The wine bar in the small alleyway in Rome where no one speaks English or the ceviche shack in Tulum decked out with plastic Corona-sponsored tables and stray cats salivating under their overflowing of leche de tigre shelters. I remember until today, the 4:00am soup bar in Istanbul that the Kurdish group I befriended during my stay took me to that had me asking myself why I never considered soup a great drunk food. Many cities have their iconic must-try dishes and the locals’ favorite place to get them. Philadelphia has its Cheesesteak, Chicago its deep-dish pizza and Miami its Cuban sandwiches. Montreal has a few.
First off, yes we make Poutine in this city, and great Poutine at that, but the best Poutines are undoubtedly on the side of the road in the countryside where the cheese curds are fresh and the fries, matchstick thin. Poutine is a province of Quebec thing, not a city thing, and, most definitely not a Canadian thing.
Credit for Montreal’s emblematic foods can be handed to the Jews. We have a large Jewish population on this island. Yiddish was the third most spoken language here (after French and English) for a small part of our history. Anyone who grew up here, especially in the Anglophone world was influenced by this culture. Our friends who shared their traditions, expressions and most importantly for me, foods, have made us non-Jews, all, by default, Jew “ish”.
The deli scene here is comparable to that of New York’s or Los Angeles. There is of course our Montreal smoked meat. There was and there will always be. God bless smoked meat. While Katz’s Delicatessen and the younger Schwartz’s Deli attract patrons from every corner of the globe who have each their own preference, their rivalry is nowhere as grand or well supported as the New York bagel versus the Montreal bagel.
As far as I’m concerned, comparison is tough because there are many stark distinctions. The main being; ours are better, hands down. Arrogant, I am not, realist I am. Our bagels are artisanal products, hand made, rolled and tossed in boiling honey water before being crisped in a wood-burning oven. The salt affects the yeast’s fermentation (ours contain no salt) and we end up with a more delicate, almost pretzel-like finish, far less filling and with a lower calorie count than our counterparts from the Big Apple.
The history of our bagel is shady. What we do know is that they were originally produced along the Main, (St.-Laurent Boulevard) in the heart of the Jewish community. They were first sold via pushcart then a horse buggy and eventually a vehicle, in the days preceding the brick and mortar shops of Fairmount and St.-Viateur, our better-known institutions in the city.
As the story goes, they originate in Vienna where a Jewish baker wanted to thank the Polish king after having helped halt the invasion of the Turks. I wonder if the king tried their soup. He baked a beugel, a ring-formed pastry reminiscent of a horse rider’s stirrup, in connection with the king’s favorite pastime.
In Poland the bagel became a popular gift for mothers after giving birth, in Russia they were sold too. The Montreal bagel exists most likely because of Chaim Seligman who brought the recipe from his birthplace in Dvinsk, Russia, now part of Latvia. He went into partnership with Jack Schlafman, who’s father Isadore brought us the Montreal Bagel Bakery and the Fairmount Bagel shop of today, which served as his home, office and bakery. With Jack, Chaim had a falling out and eventually founded St. Viateur Bagel with Myer Lewkowicz in the Mile-End of Montreal.
There have been contests over which bakery makes the better product. Pepsi meets Coca-Cola. I feel some attachment to St. Viateur because this is where my father took me when I was younger. That being said, Fairmount’s have been named best bagels in the world on a few occasions and have even made it to space!
This year when I saw a new bagel shop opening up at the Jean-Talon Market, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. What do these guys think they’re doing? The shop goes by the name of O’Bagel. I stumbled in for what I thought was going to be a waste-of-my-time-and-money tasting complete with a dubious look on my face. First, poppy, the original flavor and my father’s and my favorite. He used to call them “black seed”. Sitting there munching on what I thought would be a bite ended in half the ring down my throat and me back at the counter to taste the sesame. The white seed also more than passed the test. They were a perfect amount of chewy dough, sweet honey flavor and right density.
I called up my business partner with who I run food tours. “This just in, I said, “the best bagels in the city are at the market, and we could include them on our visits’! “So you mean the Mile-Ended “? she asked. She was right; the Mile-End was no longer worth the longer bike ride for these tasty treats.
I sat down with one of the owners and head baker at O’Bagel before he gave me a detailed visit of his new venture. George Zoumpoulias, a 29-year young fellow was born in Florida. His father, originally from the Greek island of Lesbos was a sailor who used both Florida’s coast and Montreal as ports of call. The family owned a depanneur in LaSalle.
This isn’t the first time George has manned the oven. He had worked six years at Chateauguay’s Bag-A-Bagel and five at Chateau Bagel, which both seem to be well received online (I personally don’t make it off the island that often). His shop and Café Saint-Henri‘s are the newbies at the market and have helped make my mornings that much better. He opened in May this year.
As he took me around the oven and prep area of the locale he explained to me that his focus is to roast the bagels quickly on the outside and keep the interior (which will continue to cook a bit after removed from the flames) doughy. He boils them for ten to fifteen minutes in a Greek honey water (approx. 1:10 ratio of honey to water). I definitely taste the honey here more than the other bakeries in Montreal.
The wood boards that support the bagels are dampened with water to prevent them from burning. When they are no longer fit for their roles, he recycles them by making unique pieces of furniture, each given a peculiar name and labeled with the amount of bagels each one produced. Okay, I like this guy.
His business partner, Stephane Deblois also owns the Brulerie aux 4 Vents at the market. His wife, of Mexican origin is the brain behind their in house and oh so good cream cheeses, which source their ingredients from the vendors a few feet away at the market. She is also to thank for the amount of young Mexican faces we see working at O’Bagel. She wants to help new arrivals with employment opportunities. I love the fact that they have the first lady baker I’ve ever seen in a bagel shop, girl power!
The shop has more of a cozy and artisanal vibe to it. They aren’t open 24 hours a day and they aren’t making thousands of dozens daily like the competition, they often run out of certain kinds. George is a humble man. When I asked him what he thought about having the best bagels on the island, he told me it wasn’t about that. He’s here to keep the bagel tradition alive. When I jokingly asked him if Lesbos, Greece is where lesbians came from. He said, “It’s where all the best things come from”. Okay, I really like this guy.