The Great Bagel Debate: Montreal v. NYC
A little over a month ago I ventured to the FAR NORTH with my new hubbie (Romeo). That’s right folks, I’m talking about Canada. We spent a little under a week in Montreal, an exceedingly charming city full of appealing, beautiful, smiling, amiable people who seemed to do almost everything better than their southern neighbors.
Our luggage arrived at baggage claim within mere seconds of us exiting the secure area and public transportation was far-advanced and gloriously easy to understand. The city was thoroughly walkable and every neighborhood left us gasping at its beauty. Nearly everyone was bilingual yet didn’t look down on us for our inability to speak French. The food courts were full of healthy food: fresh and delicious and diverse. The more upscale dining joints were completely comfortable with my food limitations and whipped up thoroughly decadent dishes.
Everything was beautiful, perfect and French Canadian. I was in love.
I was eager to try one particular morsel of Montreal cuisine that I had heard about from all the Canucks I’ve ever known: The Montreal bagel.
Every Canuck I’ve come across has sung the praises of the Montreal bagel, asserting its clear superiority over the New York bagel. As it was hard for me, the daughter of a New York Jew, to imagine any way of improving on a genuine New York bagel (far easier to improve on the piss-poor excuse for bagels we tend to encounter in DC), I couldn’t wait to try this mythic culinary invention.
Would the Montreal bagel stand up to my expectations? And what’s the difference between a Montreal bagel and a NYC bagel anyway? Answers after the jump….
“That’s no bagel,” I told Romeo reflexively after my first bite of my first Montreal bagel. I was disappointed. I expected a bagel, but better. Instead the Montreal bagel seemed to me to be the anorexic, atrophied cousin of a sesame seed New York bagel.
It had none of the chewiness, none of the rich contrast of textures I expect from a perfectly toasted New York bagel (you know: the pillowy, doughy, chewy inside juxtaposed with the tougher crustier exterior). I was confused: Perhaps I was simply surprised because there is so much Montrealers have to feel rightfully superior about that it was odd to me that they seized on something so obviously inferior….
It wasn’t that I disliked the Montreal bagel. It just wasn’t a bagel. It was closer to a bagel-shaped, sesame seeded, oven-toasted baguette. And Canadian folks don’t tend to serve the bagel with cream cheese, or at least that isn’t the go-to topping of choice. Butter seems to be the preferred condiment, jam a close second…. Not that I can eat cream cheese, but still….
Another disappointment – whole wheat bagels are hard to find. In fact it was very difficult to find a Montreal Bagel not made with “enriched” white flour covered with sesame seeds. They don’t really do the million-different bagel flavors thing like we do south of the border. (Although Fairmont Bakery has apparently begun offering bagels in flavored varieties, they are frowned upon for doing so by Montreal bagel traditionalists, like the owner of a superb establishment in Montreal, Beauty’s Diner.)
Maybe it’s a metaphor for the difference between U.S. Nationals and Canadian Nationals? You know: We’re fatter and more diverse demographically, and so too are our bagels.
Despite all these deficiencies Montreal natives (and most Canucks I know) are extremely proud of what they consider a superior Canadian product. In December the Montreal Gazette published an article contesting the findings of a New York Times taste test in which New Yorkers reportedly found Montreal bagels “totally bland.” Said the Montreal Gazette:
Well, we at The Gazette beg to differ. Been there, done that. In our head-to-head tasting with N.Y. bagels back in 2000, the Montreal specimens won out….There’s nothing quite so perfect as a Montreal bagel.
I get it I guess… You love what you know. Bagels for me have always been the ultimate comfort food and I was completely discomfited by the bagel shaped object masquerading as one of my favorite filling breakfast foods.
Montreal bagels differ from New York bagels in several important ways. First of all Montreal bagels are always baked in a wood-fired oven. The holes are larger, the bagel is skinnier and flatter, and the taste is drier and slightly sweeter. Apparently Montreal bagel bakers do not use salt as do their New Yorker counterparts in the recipe. The Montreal bagel also contains sugar and is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in the wood-fired oven. The salt in the New York bagel and the baking after boiling in a standard oven apparently allows the New York bagel to retain more moisture and for the dough to rise more during the baking process.
The result: New York bagel is puffy and proud, while the Montreal bagel is smaller, drier and crisper. Think about the difference between the crusts on pizzas baked in a wood brick oven and those baked in a traditional oven and you’ll get the idea.
Anyway, the Montreal Bagel is worth a try, just to see what all the hype is about. You can order them online from either of the two famous bagel sellers in Montreal (Montreal natives argue over which has better bagels): The Fairmont Bagel Bakery and St. Viateur Bagel. While Fairmont offers the bagels in Sesame, Plain, Poppy Seed as well as other varieties, St. Viateur is more appealing to the Montreal bagel purists as they only offer their bagels in Sesame and Poppy Seed. For NYC Bagel lovers, just don’t expect a real bagel when you try it and you won’t be as disappointed as I was!
I like to think of myself as a fair sort at any rate, and I wonder what you all think of this bagel controversy. Which bagel is more beguiling for you?