Bagels: A Geography Lesson

a stack of bagelsThere are certain foods that define a region. This is a bit less true today than it was 40 years ago, but there are still a few foods so associated with a place that they help define it. 

Beignets are an example. They belong so completely to New Orleans that I rarely even consider having one in my day-to-day life. But get me to New Orleans, and beignets will be one of the first stops I make.

Other examples are Philly cheese steaks and Boston clam chowder.

There are also regional differences between foods. In Pascagoula, Mississippi barbeque (the noun not the verb) is meat in a vinegary sauce. But not too far north in Memphis, Tennessee, people would roll their eyes at that. Because barbeque to them is smoked meat, with a dry spice rub.

There are other examples of this, and in this highly homogenized world we live in it’s fun to seek out the new, the different or the culinarily unique. And despite the chain restaurant syndrome, there still are a few “local” food traditions left in this world.

montreal style bagelsI came across an example of this recently at Whisk: A Food Blog. It seems that Nicole at Pinch My Salt had a Bread Makers Apprentice Challenge. Not that she asked me to play in that sandbox, but that’s another story. Anyway, the challenge was bagels.

So, it seems… Shari at Whisk participated and in her write up she said, “I haven’t eaten many New York-style bagels so I was keen to give them a try.”

New York-style bagels? I questioned, is there any other kind? I mean not counting yucky Sara Lee bagels.

Shari went on to say that “Montreal-style” bagels were a â€œfavorite” at her house.

How can I have never heard of somebody’s favorite food?

I made some lame comment about how these bagels must be French influenced and more like a pastry. If you ever wonder why I don’t leave more comments on all your wonderful blogs. It because I am pre-disposed to leaving inane garbage like this, instead of thoughtful commentary! 

But this time my stupidity paid off. Because Shari contacted Sup! personally. I was very honored by the attention. Whisk: A Food Blog is one of those blogs that inspired me to start my own blog 7 months ago! So to me she is like a rock star only better! (‘Cuz I don’t really like rock-n-roll, but you get my drift)…

Through a flurry of messages a â€œchallenge” of sorts was developed! We decided send each other a care package. Inside this package we put a few things we considered local specialties in our neck of the woods. I live in Los Angeles. She lives in Ottawa.

Well I got my package yesterday. She sent me some interesting local spices including chunks of dried ginger and a sweet sprinkling of Gold Maple Nuggets for ice cream. There is a jam made with a fruit I have never heard of called, Saskatoon. And of course, some terrific maple syrup. Which is very exciting because the sap doesn’t run in Los Angeles. Watch your mouth I have heard all the “sup” & â€œsap” jokes I can handle.

Of course she also included the genesis of this whole challenge. Montreal-style bagels.

dill and chive cream cheese spreadNaturally, I could not just eat them. I had to research them… ad nauseum. So I might as well regurgitate (hmmm… not a good food blog word, must buy thesaurus) that info right back to you, my captive audience.

Well it seems that a Montreal-style bagel is indeed quite different than what I am used to. It also seems I was at least on the right track with my French pastry remark, because Montreal bagels are dipped in honey water and have a bit of sugar in them, while New York bagels use salt.

Montreal bagels are smaller, sweeter and denser. Noticeably denser. They also have a very large hole, more like a donut. 

But the biggest difference is Montreal-style bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven giving them a dappled, crunchy exterior. 

Like New York bagels, Jewish immigrants brought Montreal bagels to North America from Eastern Europe. Though I am sure they did not call them by these names. It seems the difference in texture and taste depends exactly from what area of Eastern Europe they arrived (the people, not the bagels). Because (especially in those days) geography played a large role in determining diet. So the bagels turned out slightly different depending upon where these immigrant bakers learned their trade.

blagels with cream cheese and loxAs if this isn’t enough to separate these two styles of bagels it seems that there is a rivalry between 2 bakers of Montreal-style bagels.

For the past 30 years, two bagel bakers: St. Viateur Bagel & Cafe and Fairmount Bagel Bakery have been claiming to make the best bagel. As I hope I have proven, bagels may be Montreal’s most iconic food, so the distinction of “best” would be quite an honor.

Of course, with iconic status comes controversy! Montrealers have divided their allegiances between these two bakeries. Each claiming their favorite shop to be the best in the city. Don’t expect Sup! to get in the middle of that fight though…

I will say this: Shari included a note that said the bagels were best “toasted with dill cream cheese”. I took this to mean toasted and then spread with dill cream cheese. I put some lox on there too. I don’t know maybe it’s all those years eating New York bagels, but I require lox. I was tempted to put tomato and capers on there too. But I am trying to be true to Shari’s vision of bagel perfection.

I know you know that a treat from so far away deserves a special spread. So I made the spread myself. If you want Sup’s! recipe for Dill and Chive Cream Cheese Spread click here. 

This challenge turned out to be a lot of fun. I suggest you pick a blogger in some far away place and initiate a similar trade. Or challenge me. I am game to do this again!  You never know what new tastes you will discover.


Greg Henry