Battle of the bagels
Two Montreal bakeries compete to make the best rounds of hot, soft bagels.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."