In sub-zero temperatures and on hot summer nights, people of all ages wait to get their hands on a steaming, sesame-seed bagel fresh from the oven.
It’s a scene that has played out at this Fairmount Street bakery and another just around the corner on St-Viateur Street for almost 100 years. But while the Montreal vs. New York bagel feud has been well documented, this is a more homegrown, cross-town rivalry.
Brought in at the turn of the 1900s with the arrival of a wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the Montreal bagel has become part of the city’s culinary heritage.
The bagels are still made in a traditional way today. Each one is pulled from a hefty batch of dough, hand pulled and rolled, cooked in a simmering water-and-honey bath then doused in a specific topping.
They’re then lined up on a long wooden baker’s board (sheeba) and baked in a brick, wood-burning oven that’s perfectly calibrated to produce a bagel crispy on the outside, and light and soft on the inside.
Montreal bagels are best consumed fresh from the oven, straight from the paper bag they are served in, or dunked in a tub of cream cheese while taking a stroll down one of Mile End’s charming streets.
Rival bakery Fairmount Bagel has been around since 1919 and has many loyal customers.
Courtesy Anthony J
So which bakery makes the tastiest bagels?
Ask any Montrealer which team they’re on — St-Viateur or Fairmount — and you risk starting a heated debate. Arguments rage back and forth over the strengths of each bakery, but ultimately the allegiance seems to come down to a gut-feeling, or nostalgia.
“Whomever you were introduced to first as a child, is where your loyalty lies,” says Robert Morena, one of St-Viateur’s owners.
Food writer Marcella De Vincenzo says: “St-Viateur’s are less chewy and not as dense. They’re also a tiny bit sweeter and you can always get warm ones.”
Gianni Pezzulo, owner of Ferlucci Café, serves Fairmount bagels to his customers.
“Fairmount has been around for longer and I find it admirable that they’re still at the top of their game after so long,” he says. “They’re chewy but not too doughy. It’s a close call but Fairmount is the better product.”
The owners of both St-Viateur and Fairmount Bakery say they have an amicable relationship.
Courtesy David De Stefano
How serious is this cross-town bagel rivalry?
The owners of both family-run institutions vow that their relationship is, and always has been, amicable. They say they’re fueled by an unwavering dedication to preserve the city’s bagel tradition and have even helped each other out with ingredients in emergencies.
Both bagel shops are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their ovens never cool off.
St-Viateur is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and Fairmount Bagel will be celebrating its 100th in 2019.
Both establishments have helped to make the Montreal bagel scene famous worldwide.
Irwin Shlafman, owner of Fairmount Bagels, recalls the day a stretch limousine stopped in front of his bakery and a Japanese executive entered the store carrying a briefcase. Inside was a map of Montreal with a dotted line from Tokyo to Fairmount Bagel. Fairmount can also lay claim to producing the first bagel to go into space.
In 2008, Montreal astronaut — and Shlafman’s cousin — Gregory Chamitoff took a dozen-and-a-half, NASA-approved Fairmount bagels with him to the International Space Station. Apparently, he couldn’t imagine spending six months without his favorite snack.
When pushed about the St-Viateur vs. Fairmount debate, Shlafman equates it to boxing’s fabled Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier rivalry.
“They’re the two top contenders in the world for that particular position so I don’t see that being an Ali fan as opposed to a Frazier fan makes you wrong,” he says.