It had to happen, and this post is virtually guaranteed to stir up dissent. Bagels, in Montreal, are taken terribly seriously. Some may argue that they’re just lumps of dough, to be slathered in cream cheese and choked down as part of your morning ritual, but I say nay. NAY! Bagels in Montreal are something of a religion, and your preferred bagel-maker says a lot about your personality.
Or does it?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: if you’re going to have a Montreal bagel, it has to come from either Fairmount or St-Viateur. (Sorry, D.A.D.’s: you do have excellent Indian food, but I have never been tempted by your bagels.) You have to get it hot out of their ovens up in the Plateau, not a day or two old from the grocery store nearest you. This is part of the ritual. I told you it was a religion, right?
Which kind of makes sense, as bagels were first made by Jewish bakers—and still are, over at Fairmount. To compete, you’d have to be dedicated to the art and soul of the bagel. At both bakeries, the bagels are rolled out by hand, then baked in a wood-burning stove, which gives them their distinct flavour.
So what’s with the giant hole in the middle? Lots of Americans have this question, as their bagels tend to be more like bread donuts, puffy and chewy and never baked in a wood-burning stove. The hole is all but nonexistent, in America, the better to make bagel sandwiches!
Now, purists will tell you that the only “true” Montreal bagel comes in either sesame or perhaps poppy seed. No fancy flavoured cream cheeses to top it off, and maybe only slathered in butter if you really want to taste the bagel. I happen to agree with this, though I’m a bit of a rule-breaker when it comes to the toppings. I do love me some salmon-flavoured cream cheese or, better yet, a bit of smoked salmon atop chive and onion cream cheese. Sacrelicious!
As far as I know, St-Viateur retains this strict sesame/poppy division, and doesn’t offer any other types. This is comforting, as you can pop into the bakery and order half-a-dozen of each and get them handed off in less than a minute, rather than waiting in line while the person in front of you ponders a thousand options. Fairmount, on the other hand, offers you a dizzying array of choices including caraway seed, onion, garlic, all-dressed, mueslix, flax seed, the “power” bagel (honey, raisins, walnuts, sunflower and sesame seeds), whole-wheat, multigrain, blueberry, chocolate chip, cinnamon-raisin, pumpernickel, spelt & buckwheat, sun-dried tomato, pesto & black olive… you can see why the line here moves so slowly.
Fairmount has also diversified to offer New York-style pretzels, matzo bread, bagel chips and mini-bagels, further confounding the hungry bagel worshipper. What to choose? How many to get? Will you be able to eat them all before they start to go bad?!
For my money, I find that I prefer the St-Viateur bagels. While both are definitely delicious, and I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose at one of Fairmount’s in a pinch, I like the purity of St-Viateur’s mission. Sure, they’ve opened up a bunch of bagel cafés that serve snooty breakfasts at inflated prices, but those are for the tourists. The bakery is where all the action is, and its straightforward question, “Sesame or poppy?” is all I really need. Especially after a late night, in need of carbs to soak up the alcohol. The bagel men of St-Viateur don’t judge. They just take your money and hand over a bag full of bagel goodness.
And that, my friends, is the Montreal bagel face-off.
WINNER: St-Viateur, by a schmear.
ADDRESSES: St-Viateur – 263 St-Viateur West; Fairmount – 74 Fairmount West
METRO: Laurier and a hike, or Place-des-Arts and the Park Avenue bus
PHONES: (514) 276-8044 / (514) 272-0667
WEBSITES: St-Viateur Bagel / Fairmount Bagel