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