Can we make a de­li­cious bagel that’s po­lit­i­cally cor­rect?

Montreal Gazette - - CITY - JOSH FREED josh­[email protected]

For­get the con­tro­versy over Mount Royal or a car-free Ste-Catherine Street. Mon­treal has been fac­ing a more di­vi­sive is­sue in re­cent times that may soon be peace­fully re­solved. I speak, of course, of the Great Mon­treal Bagel Dis­pute. The bagel is a global sym­bol of this city, more im­por­tant than pou­tine and even smoked meat. Over the years, I have de­bated Mon­treal’s best bagel shops with cab­bies, city coun­cil­lors, may­ors and Que­bec premiers. If the Big Owe brought us shame, the Lit­tle O in our bagel brought only fame. But to­day we live in new times when health-and-safety con­cerns of­ten clash with tra­di­tions — and Mon­treal’s wood-fired bagel is un­der fire. In re­cent years, some peo­ple liv­ing near bagel shops have com­plained about fumes and wood par­ti­cles emit­ted from bagel-bak­ing ovens. My anti-wood-burn­ing bagel friends claim they are the most dan­ger­ous kind of air par­ti­cle and speak of “bagels that kill.” But bagel purists say wood-burn­ing restau­rants don’t add that much pol­lu­tion com­pared to cars and in­dus­try — and our fiery city tra­di­tion shouldn’t be sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of health trends. How­ever, early this week Plateau-Mont-Royal bor­ough banned all new wood-burn­ing cook­ing ovens. They’re also press­ing ex­ist­ing shops to build a bet­ter, less-pol­lut­ing bagel that con­forms to new Mon­treal air pol­lu­tion guide­lines un­der “rè­gle­ment 90, ar­ti­cle 5.66. & 3.01.” The ques­tion is: Can Mon­treal make a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, yet equally de­li­cious bagel? To its credit, city hall has been pa­tient with our long-stand­ing bageleries be­cause there’s a lot of his­tory at stake. Bagel his­to­ri­ans be­lieve the first one orig­i­nated in Poland in 1610, given to preg­nant moth­ers as a good-luck charm and teething ring. What­ever the truth, the bagel crossed the ocean about 1900 and set­tled briefly in New York, be­fore mi­grat­ing on and be­ing per­fected in Mon­treal. Like many, I grew up at the St-Vi­a­teur bagel fac­tory — a pop­u­lar hole-in-the-wall opened in 1957 and long owned by Joe Morena and sons. I’ve known Joe for­ever, a warm-hearted Ital­ian-Mon­trealer born in pizza-mak­ing Naples. But Joe be­came so con­verted to the bagel, he learned Yid­dish to speak to early Ha­sidic Jewish clients — and he still tells jokes in Yid­dish to­day. St-Vi­a­teur bagel has spread its sesame seeds to nine more city lo­ca­tions and pro­duces more than 10 mil­lion bagels a year. How­ever, many Mon­treal­ers swear by the Orig­i­nal Fair­mount bagel fac­tory, which opened in 1979 on the very same spot the fam­ily had owned a bagel shop 20 years be­fore. Each store has fa­natic fans who claim it’s the worlds best, a judg­ment that’s far too ex­plo­sive for me to pro­nounce on. How­ever, be­tween them the two stores have made the bagel the city’s best-known food ... and more. The an­glo ex­o­dus of the ’70s spread de­cent bagel-mak­ing skills across Canada — and not coin­ci­den­tally, the bagel soon be­come a hot global food trend. It’s found ev­ery­where from New Zealand to Tokyo, where cream cheese and bonito fish is served on cin­na­mon-raisin bagels. The U.S. bagel bi­ble Bagel­ma­nia states bagels are found in all North Amer­i­can cities, in one out of three restau­rants. But it con­cedes Mon­treal’s bagel may be the world’s best, be­cause of wood-burn­ing ovens that give it a “unique, charred, outer sur­face.” All of which is prob­a­bly why city hall has been pa­tiently giv­ing our bagel shops time to find a less-pol­lut­ing lease on life. In quest of the hole-y grail, St-Vi­a­teur’s orig­i­nal shop has be­come a vir­tual bagel re­search lab, test­ing ex­pen­sive air pu­ri­fiers to pro­duce a more “en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and so­cially re­spon­si­ble bagel,” says Joe’s son, Robert Morena. On Thurs­day night, the fam­ily is­sued an ex­cited press state­ment, an­nounc­ing a his­toric break­through. Their lat­est so­phis­ti­cated new purifier has been thor­oughly tested by city en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tors who just in­formed them they are far un­der the city’s new Rè­gle­ment 90 emis­sion norms. “The good news is the Mon­treal wood-burn­ing bagel has been saved,” says Joe, with de­light. The More­nas are also ex­per­i­ment­ing with less-costly hy­brid ovens that mix gas and wood. Their lat­est was just in­stalled at their Mount Royal E. shop — an 85/15 gas-to-wood mix they claim pro­duces no dif­fer­ence in bagel qual­ity. Truth or hype? Ea­ger to find out I raced out late Thurs­day night to test some sam­ples. My rat­ings? Their new hy­brid-oven bagel has a smoky, woody flavour with an aro­matic sesame-char bou­quet and the same crunch and easy munch of the bagel I grew up on. I also sam­pled their new air-pu­ri­fied oven’s bagel and in an ini­tial blind­fold test I had no idea which was which. Joe ex­pects hy­brid ovens to even­tu­ally spread through­out his and Mon­treal’s other bagel shops. But if city hall agrees, the orig­i­nal St-Vi­a­teur shop will re­tain its old wood-burn­ing oven and new air purifier — to be­come a kind of Mon­treal Her­itage Bagel Mu­seum. So breathe easy Mon­treal, we may soon have the best of both worlds: a safety-con­scious, but tra­di­tional bagel that will make our rep­u­ta­tion as Bagelville for­ever “safe.” And re­ally, Mon­treal­ers: Does any­thing else mat­ter?

JOHN MAHONEY

Owner Joe Morena and his son Robert pre­pare bagels at their St-Vi­a­teur bagel fac­tory last year. The fam­ily says their new air purifier will save the Mon­treal wood-fired bagel.

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