I love bagels. I always have. I remember the excitement in the ‘90s when we got our first bagel shop in Billings, Montana. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time a bagel shop seemed novel and interesting—maybe even a little exotic. I loved our family treks to Great American Bagel and the Grand Bagel Company, when we were greeted by a display teeming with wire baskets brimming with bagels in many flavors. As a kid, I think there was something exciting about ordering to your exact specifications—for me that usually meant a sweet bagel, toasted, oozing butter (NEVER cream cheese—I didn’t touch the stuff as a kid).
Fast forward to college. My roommate and I would wander to the cafeteria on weekend mornings for our favorite caf-hack: cheesy egg on a bagel. Those weekend breakfasts were often our only morning appearance in the cafeteria, and those bagel sandwiches fueled us through many a Sunday studying in the library (and maybe nursing a hangover from to much fun the night before).
When I moved to Slovakia, bagels became one of a select group of foods that you just couldn’t find in Slovakia that I MISSED. (Other items on this list included sharp cheddar cheese, Moose Tracks ice cream, fake maple syrup and Kraft mac & cheese). With no bagels available anywhere nearby, I had no choice but to bide my time till I went home each summer and eat as many as I could then.
With my lifelong love of bagels, I knew that bagels had to be on my must-do list on our mini-trip to Montreal. I was eager to try the Canadian version of my favorite comfort carbs. I had also read about the rivalry between the two original bagel shops, so I was determined to try them both.
The First Contender: St-Viateur Bagels
When we arrived in Montreal, I headed straight to bagel rival #1: St-Viateur Bagel Shop.
I was taken aback when I walked into the shop. I had been expecting something akin to the typical bagel shop I’m used to Stateside, but St-Viateur is much more economical. It’s a no-nonsense shop. Clearly the bagels are the priority here, not customer comfort, and design proves that. The customer space accommodates little more than the requisite line and a row of refrigerated shelves holding various bagel accoutrement.
I hopped in line, and when my turn came more quickly than expected, I made an impulse order: sesame (a local staple), rosemary and multigrain, along with a couple single-serve tubs of Philadelphia cream cheese. Since there was no seating in St-Viateur, we popped into a hipster coffee shop next year for a pick-me-up and a seat, then I tucked into my DIY bagels schmears and was stopped in my tracks.
What Makes a Bagel a Montreal Bagel?
If you’ve never had a Montreal-style Bagel, be warned—they are distinctly different from a New York-style bagel (i.e. what most of us are used to in the States). So what distinguishes these bagels, you ask? A couple of things:
Montreal bagels are handmade and wood-fired, typically on a long plank
They are thinner than a typical “New York-style” bagel with a larger hole
The dough is distinctly sweeter and isn’t made with salt
That sweetness is heightened when they are boiled in honey-sweetened water
There are two traditional toppings: black seeds (poppy) and white seeds (sesame)
A Brief History of the Bagel
According to food historians, bagels were brought to North America by Eastern European immigrants. It is thought that the style and flavor of the Montreal bagels reflects what was once typical in Poland. Beyond that, the history of the bagel is somewhat mythic. No one knows the exact origins of the bagel, but there are a couple of hypotheses.
It’s thought that bagels likely started in Poland as a what came to be known as an obwarzanek, and there are several different origin stories for the snack, including:
Bagels gained popularity when Queen Jadwiga opted to eat obwarzanek during lent, rather than other more richly flavored breads she typically would have eaten
Bagels were developed in 1683 as a tribute to King Jan Sobieski, who had led the Austrian Empire and held off Turkish invaders. Their round shape (reminiscent of a stirrup) was an homage to his love of horses
Prior to the 16th century, Jews were commonly viewed as enemies of the church, so they were denied access to bread because of the connection between bread, Jesus and the sacrament. As a result, they were often banned from doing any commercial baking. This started to change in Poland during a period known as the “Nobles’ Democracy.” Unlike many of their European neighbors, most Poles identified as citizens of Poland rather than with their ethnic, religious or linguistic origins, and this led to a change in mindset in the late 13th century that gradually allowed Jews to bake and later sell bread.
It is theorized that the boiling technique that gives bagels there signature chewy outside and doughy center is a result of these rulings. Some say that Jews were eventually allowed to work with bread that was boiled (ostensibly as a safety precaution to protect unsuspecting gentiles), and thus the bagel was born. There’s a lot more to this history of bagels, and if you’re interested in learning more, I’d suggest “The Secret History of Bagels” by Ari Weinzweig in The Atlantic.
While we don’t know the true origins of the bagel, we do know that the name comes from Yiddish, from beigen, “to bend.” The first written record is found in Krakow city regulations from 1620 stipulating that bagels should be given to women after childbirth.
It’s also unclear exactly when bagels made the hop across the Atlantic, but one thing is clear—by the turn of the 20th century, they’d taken hold in New York. By 1900, 70 bakeries existed on the Lower East Side. The International Beigel Bakers' Union was founded in 1907 and would go on to monopolize bagel production in the city.
Another intersting piece on the history of the bagel, including how Lenders Bagel single-handedly brought bagels to everyone in America, is “A Short History of the Bagel” by Joan Nathan for Slate.
The Second Contender: Fairmount Street Bagels
After visiting St-Viateur and wandering Mile End, the quirky little neighborhood it inhabits, we made our way to Montreal’s other OG bagel shop—Fairmount Street Bagels, which is conveniently located right around the corner. From what I gather this is a food divides like the Mike’s Pastry/Modern Pastry here in Boston. People who have an opinion on which is better usually have an OPINION.
Both bakeries churn out bagels 24/7, and word is you’ll see people lining up to get fresh bagels night and day. Both bakeries have the same no-nonsense, bagels-first feel. They’re not places you go to grab a bite and lounge for hours with your laptop. You get your bagels and get going.
However, what these bakeries lack in comfort, they make up for in skill. The most amazing part of both shops was watching how the bagels are made. After the they are hand-rolled into their iconic rings, the bagels are simmered in a hot bath of honey water (hence that unique sweetness). The bagels are then dressed with toppings and lined up on a long plank called a “sheeba,” which the baker slides into brick woodburning oven. Once they’ve finished baking, the process is completed a bit of drama: the baker slides the sheeba out of the oven and with a deft flick of the board, sends a cascade of bagels flying through the air into big bins for sale and packaging. Some serious skill is at work at this point—not a single bagel touched the floor the whole time we watched.
After ogling the bagel cascade at Fairmount Street, I grabbed three more bagels—the typical sesame, a chocolate chip bagel, and something called a “sweet bagel”—then found a bench across the street to tuck into my bagel treats. These bagels proved to be similar in flavor, but were a little chewier and a little toastier in the bake than their rival around the corner. The chocolate chip bagel was particularly good. I’m not always one for sweet bagels, but the chocolate chips nicely complemented the natural sweetness of these bagels.
In the St-Viateur/Fairmount divide, I think I come down on the side of the latter. However, at the end of the day, I think I still prefer the more their more savory American counterparts. Like many Montréalais, I guess I’m most partial to the bagels I had first.