Battle of the bagels

Two Montreal bakeries compete to make the best rounds of hot, soft bagels.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In Montreal, where French and English flow into one another with a stylish effortlessness and relaxed denizens sip café au laits in European-style coffeehouses, it's not surprising that one of the few points of contention would be on matters of the boulangerie.

For the past 30 years, two storied bagelries, the St. Viateur Bagel & Cafe and the Fairmount Bagel Bakery, located a few blocks from each other in the city's Mile End neighborhood, have divided the allegiances of Montrealers.Bagels are perhaps Montreal's most celebrated food, akin to cheesesteaks in Philadelphia or clam chowder in Boston. Compared to their New York cousins, Montreal bagels are more like soft pretzels – flatter, doughier, and sweeter. They've been replicated, with arguable success, in Toronto, Calgary, and other Canadian cities, but people living far outside Montreal are drawn to this city for the bagels alone.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a line snaked out of the Fairmount shop. Marty Machalek of Pointe-Claire, west of downtown Montreal, was buying a dozen bagels to take to his father in Ontario.

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"I went around the city with my girlfriend a few years ago comparing bagel shops, and this one was the best," Mr. Machalek said. "The bagels are gooey and warm. But really, [Montreal bagels] are all good."

Helene Woodlock, who was visiting family in Montreal and stocking up on bagels before driving back home to Toronto, said the bagels at Fairmount are "more moist and taste better" than those at St. Viateur. Overhearing Ms. Woodlock, Marilena Iacovino of Montreal agreed. "The bagels over there tend to be burned or very dark – overcooked – in my opinion," she said.

The standing area inside Fairmount is perhaps 15 by 8 feet. There are no tables or chairs – just a cooler stacked with hummus, lox, and fromage à la crème. Roughly 20 types of bagels – including blueberry, flaxseed, and pesto and black olive, along with the more traditional varieties – are displayed in bins by the service counter and continuously replenished by a baker.

A storied history

Both Fairmount and St. Viateur have roots in the bagel-baking tradition of early 20th-century Russia. Isadore Shlafman, grandfather of the Fairmount's current owners, introduced bagels to Montreal in 1919 when he opened a stand on St. Lawrence Boulevard. His bagel-baking method is still used at Fairmount today. Employees go through a rigorous training process to learn how to make and shape the dough, and how to boil the bagels in the honey water that gives them their characteristic sweetness.

"Some people make the dough according to what's easiest for the baker," said Irwin Shlafman, a current co-owner. "Those people don't last very long here. I make the dough according to what's best for the people who'll eat the bagels. That's why people can eat four or five bagels during a car ride without feeling like there's a lead ball in their stomach."

Mr. Shlafman eschews high-yielding commercial ovens for the same wood-fired oven that his grandfather built at the current Fairmount site. In 1949, after his grandfather closed his first shop, he "moved here with ... my grandmother, intending to retire, but ended up knocking down the back wall of his living room to build the bagel oven," Shlafman said.

In those early days, bagels were virtually unknown outside Montreal's Jewish community. Isadore Shlafman baked his bagels throughout the night, primarily for restaurants. Poppy seed bagels were the only bagels available until 1952, the younger Shlafman said, when a customer complained to Shlafman that the poppy seeds got stuck in his dentures. Thus the sesame seed bagel was born.

"Customers began bringing in little bags of sesame seeds to sprinkle on the bagels," Irwin Shlafman said. Plain bagels came later.

St. Viateur, which opened in 1957, was cofounded by Majer Lewkowicz, and Hyman Selikman. The current owner, Joe Morena, an immigrant from southern Italy, began working at St. Viateur in 1962, at the age of 14. Even when the Fairmount closed for 17 years, between 1962 and 1979, St. Viateur remained in operation, and included the Shlafmans among its customers, Mr. Morena said.

Different flavors and tastes

St. Viateur now has five satellite shops throughout Montreal, which are owned by Morena's three sons. Only sesame and poppy seed bagels are produced at the original location, although about half a dozen other varieties are made at the satellite shops. Like Shlafman, Morena sticks to the recipe the founders brought with them from Russia. "The recipe has stayed the same since Day 1, with only minor adjustments," Morena said. "I remember when I used to use blackstrap molasses. Now we use malt flour."

Despite their common roots, Fairmount and St. Viateur bagels do taste different. In informal taste tests over the years, St. Viateur has often triumphed. St. Viateur loyalists say it's the texture.

"They have a lot of air inside," explained Calvin Hana, after buying bagels with his 4-year-old daughter. "The sesame seed bagels are very good, and the cinnamon-raisin bagels here are very nice.... I can't eat the ones at Fairmount; I think they put orange flavor on them or something."

"Fairmount bagels are ... I don't know, mushy," added customer Natalie Beneteau.

In the interest of thorough reporting, I decided to conduct my own taste test. I was underwhelmed by my first St. Viateur bagel, sesame seed. It tasted, as one of the Fairmount loyalists had complained, burnt on the outside. However, my second St. Viateur bagel, a poppy seed from a different batch, was bagel perfection: a crusty, not burnt, exterior yielding to the soft, still warm interior. There was, indeed, something to the texture argument.

Fairmount bagels, while more uniformly soft, have an advantage in their variety. The whole-grain bagel was nutty and hearty, with just the right amount of sweetness; the blueberry bagel tasted of real blueberries. My verdict: Go to St. Viateur for poppy and sesame seed bagels and stock up on the exotic flavors at Fairmount. All are better than what you'll find in the United States.

The quiet rivalry continues, with one or both bagelries occasionally making headlines. Earlier this year, Montreal-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, Shlafman's cousin, took 18 Fairmount bagels with him aboard the space shuttle Discovery. (Shlafman said he won't capitalize on the "out of this world" bragging rights.) Here on Earth, however, both Shlafman and Morena say there is ample room for two revered bagel bakeries in Montreal.

"They have their clientele and I have mine," Morena said. "The important thing is we both do a good business; we both have good customers."

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