"The two bageleries are only a few blocks apart so picking one doesn't usually involve convenience—it's about loyalties."
Montrealers have a lot of pride in the their bagels. Plus in a French accent, the word just sounds better: bay-gal. Depending on who you ask, "the best" are either from Fairmount or St-Viateur, both of which sell them fresh 24 hours a day. Before touching on the rivalry, let's define the Montreal bagel.
What's All the Fuss?
Compared to the New York-style bagel—a bulbous bread monster—these are smaller, less chewy, and sweeter, thanks to some honey or malt syrup. The bagels are hand-rolled then bathe in sweetened boiling water, and finally baked in a big wood-fired oven. Because of the erratic flames inside, some come out a golden shade while others are a snowier white. The oven is a huge factor in the awesomeness. Some cities prohibit wood-burning ovens due to fire hazards, but thankfully Montreal has a loosier-goosier policy.
Good luck trying to find an everything bagel in Montreal. Instead, the most popular flavor is sesame, and they pour on the seeds real good. While both bagelries sell about 20 flavors total (like poppy seed and cinnamon-raisin) the sesames make up 70 percent of sales.
The St-Viateur vs. Fairmount Rivalry
Is there a difference? The Fairmount bagel is just a smidge sweeter. "When you ask people which they prefer, it's about a 60-40 split, Fairmount to St-Viateur," says Montreal food blogger Katerine Rollet. But then again, she is a Fairmount fan (which probably has something to do with her sweet tooth). The two bageleries are only a few blocks apart so picking one doesn't usually involve convenience—it's about loyalties.
Which Is "The Original"?
Technically, Fairmount is the original. It opened in 1919, but on St-Viateur Street (this is where it gets all tricky) by a Russian immigrant named Isadore Shlafman. He later moved his bagely to a bigger cottage space on Fairmount Avenue. All of the signage inside Fairmount alludes to this 1919 birth year, even if it was under a different roof, which gives them more of the first-kid-on-the-block street cred.
St-Viateur opened on St-Viateur Street, where it has stayed, in 1957 by an Eastern European immigrant named Myer Lewkowicz who partnered with Jack Shlafman, the son of the Fairmount owner at the time. (Drama!)
Montreal vs. NYC Bagel
What makes our bagels different from everybody else is that they're hand-made. New York, I think 90% of the bagels are machine-made. Toronto, they try to copy off us but still haven't perfected. —Marco Sblano, St-Viateur
The Bagel Stages of Life
What starts as a massive sheet of dough gets sliced into a long snake, which gets hand-rolled into many bagel loops. They have bigger holes than the New York version, or at least look bigger due to the smaller size.
Bagel sauna! They get boiled for three minutes.
Then into the oven they go for about twenty minutes.
Weeeee. Bagels roll down the bagel slide. St-Viateur told us they sell about between 700 to 1,000 dozen a day.
Tips for Smuggling Them in Luggage
Both places sell the bagels in plastic sleeves (each bag contains six). They can last on their own for six days, in the fridge for ten days, and a few months in the freezer.
I did not report the bagel stowaways in my luggage on my customs forms for fear of them being seized. I tend to lead an honest life but the thought of confiscation pained me too much. Apparently there's a bagel booth at Dorval International Airport right beside the duty-free shop but I took a little walk on the wild side instead. Montreal bagels make you do ka-ray-zee things.
263 Rue Saint-Viateur Ouest, Montreal QC H2V 1Y1, Canada (map) 514-276-8044
74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest, Montreal QC H2T 2M2, Canada (map) 514-272-0667
Note: Last weekend I went to Montreal. Check out more nibbles in my Snapshots from Montreal.