The Montreal-Style Bagel, Considered (Too) Deeply

Montreal bagels i i

My, what a big hole you have. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR
Montreal bagels

My, what a big hole you have.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

A while ago, there was talk in the jazz Twitterverse about the supposed superiority of the Montreal-style bagel. Prominent Canadians such as Darcy James Argue and Peter Hum declared their allegiances to Montreal's signature breadstuff, at least compared to the New York-style product which has proven the dominant model for the U.S. market.

The bagel is my favorite of the breakfast foods, a taste refined by years of life in New York City. Here I admit my bias: some version of the New York product — there is a fair amount of internal variation — is my Platonic Form of the bagel. But my palette is broad. I was willing to accept, or even to prefer an alternate baking method.

In my too-brief stay in Montreal, I ate nearly four bagels. And I am just about ready to render a judgment. But first:

Montreal bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and a bit more crisp as concerns the crust. They're made with egg, without salt, boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-burning oven. At the tiny Fairmount, one of the city's landmark bakeries*, you couldn't order a shmear of cream cheese to go — you had to buy a small tub and self-apply. But it is a 24/7 shop: its busiest periods were weekend mornings and late nights, when the bar crowd wandered by to sate its drunken cravings. Lose some, win some.

I ordered sesame, poppy seed and onion varieties, with a salmon-spread fromage. The reduced size was actually an advantage: more snackable, easier to get your teeth around. And the crust was perfectly crispy too — no toasting was needed to get that toasted texture. But the slight sweetness and the woody aftertaste confused me. Of what use were these characteristics? To what end were they designed — especially as regards the pairing with cream cheese?

Nonetheless, they were satisfying, and intriguing, to the point that I craved, and ordered a fourth sesame bagel at the airport on my way out. (A more generic local manufacturer, I'm afraid.) It was also delicious.

There is a silly metaphor to be drawn here between the jazz wars and their bagel equivalent. In Montreal, I saw the Robert Glasper quartet with Bilal, the Tomasz Stanko quintet, Allen Toussaint solo, the Brandi Disterheft quintet and a local jam session play several varying kinds of jazz. They were all quite different in concept. But none were truer to the spirit of jazz, of artful improvised music: they were just different.

Similarly, there are varying styles of bagel. But when they're served fresh, and made with craft and care, I'll happily eat any of them.

Of course, there's the whole question of when that which is called "jazz" isn't jazz. But then we're into the questions of bagels vs. bialys, and prefab frozen bagels, and all that is another post entirely.


*I know there are some of you out there who think more highly of St. Viateur, but I went to Fairmount upon David Ryshpan's recommendation. Take it up with him.

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