The bagel’s true history is surprisingly hard to trace, despite a variety of charming (but demonstrably false) origin stories. As Balinka notes, ring-shaped breads that are boiled or steamed before baking turn up in a variety of cultures, from the Italian tarallo to the girde favoured by Uigurs in northwestern China. The bagel as we know it today emerged from the thriving Jewish community in medieval Poland. The word itself, which is thought to derive from the Yiddish beigen, meaning “to bend,” first appears in writing in a 1610 document prescribing how the Jews of Kraków should celebrate the circumcision of a baby boy.
Starting in the 1880s, pogroms in Eastern Europe triggered a massive wave of Jewish migration to North America, with Montreal as the biggest Canadian destination—and with them came culinary essentials like the bagel. There was no “standard” bagel recipe, so the bagel bakeries that sprang up in New York, Montreal, and elsewhere all had their own idiosyncrasies. But as the New York bagel became bigger and fluffier, the Montreal version settled into a different mould: smaller, hand-rolled, chewy on the inside thanks to egg in the batter, crispy on the outside thanks to the wood-fired oven, and slightly sweet from being parboiled in honey-water. The result, says Montreal food guide Mélissa Simard, is a bagel that stands on its own: “You can eat one dry, with no garnish,” she says. “Actually, you can eat more than one.”
The names of the bakers who pioneered Montreal-style bagels are lost in the mists of time, but the predecessor to Fairmount Bagel Bakery opened in 1919 (though it later closed and only reopened in 1949). Fairmount’s website insists that this was the first bagel bakery in Montreal, but Balinka considers this claim highly implausible, given the thousands of Eastern European Jews already living in the city. St-Viateur Bagel Shop opened in 1957, and since then the two bakeries have been locked in a friendly battle for the loyalties of Montrealers.
All this background info and hype was ricocheting around in my head as I headed to the Mile End neighbourhood, where Fairmount and St-Viateur face off, on my second day in Montreal. My first stop was St-Viateur, where a friendly baker named Saul Restrepo told us how he’d been recruited into the business back in 1981. “I was 16 years old, and I used to stop and get a bagel on my way home after delivering the Montreal Gazette,” he recalled. “Then one day, Joe, the owner, said ‘Hey kid, you want to make bagels?’” More than three and half decades later, he rolled dough into rings with a practiced flip of the wrist, dunked them in water, then shovelled them briskly into a cavernous oven. At full capacity, he said, the bakery churned out four dozen bagels every five minutes—each one made entirely by hand.
My first bagel was still warm, bordering on hot, when I bit into it. It was chewy in a substantial way, unlike the spongy nothingness of supermarket bagels, but without the leaden density of the semi-stale Montreal bagels I’d had before. The sweetness I’d heard so much about was more of a rumour, an overtone that added a twist to the tang of the malted dough. It was good, even with nothing on it, something I never figured I’d say about an unadorned sesame bagel. I ate two—and then stopped, since I still had to check out Fairmount.