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Battle of the bagels

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

By Ami AlbernazContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2008



Montreal

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.

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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.

"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."

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