My checklist of Montreal's top attractions during a recent visit ran something along these lines: take a walk down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, experience the tweet-worthy summit of Mont Royal, eat fresh corn on the cob at Jean-Talon marche, buy bottles of Ice cider and... eat a bagel for breakfast?
Being so intimately familiar with the dense and chewy texture of Murray's bagels in New York, or the reliably large kettle-boiled ones from Nussbaum & Wu, I wasn't expecting much from Montreal.
But I was deliciously surprised.
New York City bagels often weigh you down because they're so large and dense. Not so the Montreal-style bagels, which are made with malt, egg and salt-less dough and dunked in boiling honey-sweetened water before being baked in a wood-stoked oven. And the holes are larger, so there's less bagel.
Montreal has Polish Jewish immigrants to thank for the famous edible goods. Although the jury is still out on who precisely introduced the bagel to the city, the art of baking them in wood-fueled ovens produce irregular sized flames give them delightfully inconsistent light and dark colors.
There's one aspect of dining at St. Viateur that is quite fun: the bagels are also crafted in full view of the customers. This is culinary transparency at its best! You can see the entire product from dough to baked good, right behind the cashier. The wood-stoked oven emits a cheery glow and gives off a friendly heat, even in the summer. The cashier is so busy that I have to be pretty quick with my selection of bagels, but Montreal residents don't rush their in-café experience.
As Marie Jose Pinsonnault from Tourisme Montreal put it, "You'll never see someone from Montreal with a cup of Starbucks in hand, crossing the road." That's how they eat their bagels too: unhurried. Most residents savor every sip of their morning beverage at the café table.
St. Viateur President Vince Morena (one of the three brothers who own the shop) says that having the recipe is one thing, but executing it is quite another. Since each bagel is handmade, it's less dense than a traditional machine-made bagel because the machine expels all the air out of the dough. The difference is huge, like comparing whipped cream to butter.
"We produce 3,000 dozen bagels a day," he says (this number is across all his stores). If Morena were to use machines to produce bagels, he estimates he'd be able to churn out 3,000 dozen bagels per hour. That's the price you pay for making everything by hand. But the proof is in the pudding: "We sell every bagel we make," he says, and during the holiday weekend they are five times as busy. The bagels at St. Viateur aren't that expensive: $7 for a dozen.
Now New Yorkers partial to the same taste as the Canadian version can get their freshly-baked bagels at Brooklyn-based Mile End Delicatessen, which used to import bagels from St. Viateur for several years. From this month onwards, the deli has started baking the bagels fresh on premises, following a similar recipe to St. Viateur's. You'll have to fork over some extra bucks for the Mile End Deli bagels, however. They retail for $2.50 a pop.
If you can't trek north of the border, order the bagels online. St. Viateur does regular shipments to the U.S. (with next day delivery available to New York and two day delivery to the rest of the country). The store's most popular bagel? "Sesame," says Morena. "They're what 90% of our customers ask for."