The proof is in the bite

A tour of Montreal’s famed bagel bakers in Mile End provides a tantalizing history of the city’s Jewish community.

bagel oven 311 (photo credit: George Medovoy)
bagel oven 311
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
MONTREAL – There’s a secret ingredient that goes into making Montreal’s famous bagels that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s not sitting on a shelf somewhere, and it’s not something that you can fill into a measuring cup.
A baker at St-Viateur Bagel in Montreal’s trendy Mile End neighborhood explained it to me as I took a bite into a crispy specimen he had just removed from the wood-burning oven.
Montreal bagels, he said with a distinct finality, are “made with love.” Et voila, need we say more? Well, maybe a bit more… about the European Jewish immigrants who contributed to Montreal’s mix of cultures in the early part of the twentieth century, bringing with them many wonderful food traditions, including, of course, the ubiquitous bagel.
Far more than French (or Quebecois) alone, Montreal, this wonderful island city in the St. Lawrence River, is a charming blend of different peoples and eclectic foods.
Two of the city’s bagel makers, St-Viateur Bagel at 263 St-Viateur West and Fairmount Bagel at 74 Fairmount Avenue West, are no-frills establishments in Mile End, and no matter when you get a craving for a bite, you can drop by any time because both bakeries are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the 1920s, Yiddish-speaking immigrants were drawn to this storied area, populating streets like Saint Urbain, Laurier, and Mount Royal Avenue.
Many of them went to work in clothing factories, while others took to the road to become peddlers in the Quebec countryside, getting to know the people who lived in the small towns of rural Quebec and, of course, quickly learning the French patois.
But in Montreal itself, you could hear three principal languages being spoken between the two world wars: French, English… and, yes, Yiddish.
Today’s Mile End is still an eclectic mix of people, including a Hassidic presence, cool cafes, artists, and clothing boutiques.
In the middle of it all is a little place called Wilensky’s Light Lunch, which opened in 1932 and is still functioning.
It sits, as if frozen in time, at the bottom of a building at 34 Fairmount West on the corner of Fairmount and Saint-Urbain, a short walk from Fairmount Bagel.
The Canadian writer Mordecai Richler was a regular at Wilensky’s, and the shop figured in the movie, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which was based on Richler’s novel about the city.
From Wilensky’s, I walked to Fairmount Bagel, whose founder, Isidore Schlafman, was an immigrant bagel-maker from Russia who arrived in Montreal in 1919.
“My grandfather opened up the first bagel bakery in Montreal,” said the current owner, Irwin Schlafman, who described his grandfather’s experience as the classic immigrant’s story.
Grandfather Isidore operated his business in “makeshift” quarters on St. Laurent Street for 30 years, eventually moving to a house on Fairmount, “where he moved in upstairs with my grandmother and a daughter, knocked down the back wall of the living room and built a bagel oven into the backyard.”
“He baked bagels from five in the morning to five at night,” said Schlafman.
While automation has caught up with bagel-making in many other places, bagels in Montreal are still made the old-fashioned way – hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, and then baked in wood-burning ovens to yield that wonderful, crusty exterior, and chewy center.
If you were to compare the looks of Montreal bagels with New York bagels, you’d find Montreal’s smaller than their New York counterparts and not as puffy, thus yielding a larger hole in the Montreal version.
At Fairmount, Schlafman trains his workers on how to roll bagels, but because of the attention to detail, there is a high attrition rate.
“Out of every 10 that I train,” he said, “one or two will stay and the other eight go because they just can’t do it properly.”
On my visit to St-Viateur, the crowded little bakery was filled with customers placing orders at the counter, and there were heavy bags of flour stacked high on the floor.
Making bagels requires “a lot of hard work,” said owner Joe Morena, who jokingly referred to himself as a “good Italian boy that speaks Yiddish.”
These days, you can also buy St-Viateur bagels in Brooklyn, which takes us to a sequel of this bagel story starring Noah Bernamoff and his wife, Rae Cohen, two Montreal transplants who opened a very popular Montreal-style deli named – what else? – Mile End Delicatessen, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
Once a week, someone drives a load of bagels down to their deli from Montreal, thus keeping things really authentic.
Bernamoff, a native Montrealer, met his wife while in college in Montreal. She is originally from New York.
About four-and-a-half years ago, they moved to New York, where Bernamoff enrolled in law school.
But longing for the food pleasures of Montreal, he started experimenting “for fun” with smoked meat, Montreal’s famous version of pastrami.
He would make it in a smoker on the roof of where he was living, and after a lot of experimenting and encouragement from his friends, he took a leap of faith, quit law school, and opened the deli with his wife in January of 2010.
The rest, as they say, is history, and now there’s a Montreal-style deli in Brooklyn and, besides the smoked meat and the other Montreal favorites, you can also enjoy a real Montreal bagel, with its distinctive density and sweet chew.
One of the other benefits of eating Montreal bagels, Bernamoff noted, is the amount of toppings you get compared to other bagels.
“If you get a Montreal bagel,” he said, “it’s covered in sesame seeds. If you get a poppy seed bagel, it’s covered in poppy seeds.”
With all of this, however, the Montreal bagel story still wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Montreal Kosher, a bakery housed in a big, warehouse-type building at 7005 Victoria Avenue in the Cote-des-Neiges district.
Montreal Kosher not only bakes bagels, but many other products, too, like cakes and mouth-watering potato knishes to die for.
The counter is crowded with customers calling out their orders, as workers in white aprons push tall carts of freshly baked goods.
Owner Yaacov Bineth has operated Montreal Kosher for 55 years and summed up the secret to making good bagels when he said, as if by understatement: “You have to understand how to make them.”
And the proof, of course, is in the bite.
George Medovoy writes on travel at