If you’ve ever had the pleasure of going, you know that Montreal is one of the coolest cities in North America. Unlike most American cities or even Toronto, which feels vaguely Midwestern, Montreal has an Old World feel to it–if there’s any city in North America that comes anywhere close to feeling European, Montreal is it. Plus, the band Arcade Fire and is from there (apparently the band “Of Montreal” is actually from Athens, GA), which makes it even cooler for us indie music fans.
I was introduced to the wonders of Montreal by an old boyfriend just over 10 years ago. He was Canadian himself (English Canadian–this is a huge distinction in Montreal and all of Quebec, where speaking French is a political act) and had spent six years living in Montreal before moving to Boston to get his PhD in musicology at Hahvahd. M. was always talking up Montreal, particularly the food there in addition to the fun, open culture. (Where else can you find a dance club called Les FouFounes Electriques, which he loosely translated from the French as “the electric butt cheek.” I don’t speak French and I like that name so much that I don’t want to ruin it for myself by checking for accuracy, so if that’s incorrect to you French speakers out there, get over it and let’s enjoy the translation as is).
Because of its culture and because it’s relatively close, Montreal is a favorite destination for many a New Englander. Of course this might also have something to do with having a drinking age of 18 and copious strip clubs that expose the Full Monty (Full Montreal?) for both sexes. But, more importantly for those of us here in Food Blog Land, it’s a food destination. Despite the city’s deeply French origins, it is also a city of immigrants from all over the world and, as such, it has developed some fascinating takes on foods that are unique to Montreal. One of these is Montreal smoked meat–if you lived in New York, you might call this pastrami. But Montreal smoked meat is not quite pastrami--it’s similar, but not quite the same. It’s made with corned beef, but doesn’t really contain the heavily peppered and spiced crust that NY deli pastrami has. And whereas many Jewish delis slice their pastrami very thinly, Montreal smoked meat is sliced pretty thick (think Katz’s Deli-thick if you’ve ever been) and then piled high on your sandwich. Also unique to Montreal, or Quebec rather, is poutine, a pretty damned wonderful concoction of french fries smothered in Wisconsin-esque cheese curds and then covered in gravy. Poutine is probably worthy of it’s own post someday. Hot dogs are also a Montreal favorite. But don’t slather your hot dog in ketchup and mustard or chili or onions in Montreal. In Montreal, hot dogs are grilled in butter on a flat top and served on a buttered New England hot dog, split-top bun. If you want to be traditional, you order your Montreal dog “all dress,” which comes with cabbage slaw on top. I maybe eat one hot dog a year during picnic/baseball season and generally prefer burgers, but Montreal Dogs with a side of poutine make for a klassy (yes, with a “k”), yummy junk food binge.
One of the things that M. missed most living in Boston was Montreal bagels. Now, Boston is certainly no New York when it comes to bagels, but there are many good, properly made bagels to be had in Boston and throughout New England and the East Coast. Not like here in northern California where, until recently, there have not really been any quality bagels to speak of. It’s not that you can’t find bagels in the Bay Area, it’s just that most of them are frankly pretty crappy and definitely haven’t been made by people acquainted with how to really make a bagel (yes, I mean you, local chain that starts with an N, ends with an H and vaguely refers to a guy in the Bible who built a big ol’ boat and filled it with animals, 2×2). What’s particularly bad and inauthentic about most bagels in northern California is that they are very obviously not boiled before baking, which leaves their insides the same consistency as, say, bread, which is just so wrong. Or as the Quebecois might say, “Sacrament!” Bagels need to be dense as hell on the inside, not light and airy. With bagels, you don’t want your gluten strands to be loosely formed–they need to be bound together tightly. Any good, real bagel maker knows this.
According to bread guru Michael Kalanty’s (who I took a bread class from last summer) award-winning bread bible How to Bake Bread, bagels are a lean dough–which means they have a very small percentage of sugar and fat in them. (Challah or focaccia, on the other hand, are slack doughs–they have a lot of fat and sugar in them, thus producing a light, airy, hole-y interior consistency). French baguettes are also a lean dough, but bagels are even more lean because they contain very little water. Kalanty’s recipe for bagel dough is only 56% water–the lowest hydration level for any bread in his book. It is therefore a very tough dough, consistency-wise. A baguette, on the other hand, has nearly 10% more water–approximately 63%–and this makes a world of difference.
And as any true bagel lover knows, a real bagel must be poached before baking, in the same manner that you might fry a doughnut–on both sides for approximately 20 seconds each. Then you bake at high heat.
So, what’s so special about Montreal bagels that distinguishes them from the New York variety? Well, for one, NY bagels are pudgy and Montreal bagels are skinny. With many NY varieties, there’s barely a hole, with Montreals, the hole is large. They are also even denser and chewier than NY ones–which may be bad for you if you have TMJ or if you tend to clench your jaw in your sleep a tight due to day-job stress like this blogger. Of course, lack of chewiness is one of the gravest sins of northern California bagels, in my opinion. I want to feel that bagel in my over-clenched jaw after a few bites–my jaw needs to start hurting, that’s how I know it’s authentic! Montreal bagels are also boiled in honey water, as opposed to plain, and usually only come in two varieties–sesame or poppy seed. And the biggest difference of all between the NY and Montreal varieties? Montreals are wood-fired, not oven baked.
All of this is by way of explaining that the East Bay has finally woken up to smell the yeast bubbling and finally has not one but TWO proper bagel places in our midst. Recently featured in Oakland magazine are two new real bagel eateries, Beauty’s Bagels in Temescal and Authentic Bagel Company. I made a field trip yesterday afternoon to Beauty’s to try them out–and was impressed.
According to their website, Beauty’s has modeled their bagels after the famous St-Viateur and Fairmount bagel bakeries in Montreal. St-Vaiteur was M.’s favorite bagel shop. On a trip to Montreal together, he took me there to get breakfast bagels. St-Viateur is absolutely worth a visit if you ever go to Montreal–not only for the bagels but for the experience. The place is a veritable cornucopia of bagels, with bread-y goodness literally spilling from every pore in the place. Sesame or poppy only are piled on silver tables and in wheelbarrow like troughs throughout the store. Their wood-fire oven churns out baked goods 24 hours a day–if you’ve got a bagel hankering at 3:33 in the am, you can go to the shop and get a fresh bagel. Crusty, old bakers in newsboy caps pull bagels out of the oven with huge metal palettes. It’s like stepping into an Old World European bakery.
But back to Beauty’s. I stopped in yesterday to pick up a few bagels to try. Beauty’s goes beyond the two-flavors of Montreal to also serve up salt and pepper, plain, onion, everything, whole wheat, and, of course, sesame and poppy seed. Since I just wanted to get a couple varieties to take home to try, I got two salt and pepper and two onion. The nice thing about these bagels is that the toppings are on both sides of the bread–not just on the top, like many shops. They are appropriately chewy–it didn’t take long for this clenched-jaw girl to feel that bagel.
The density is obviously there–cut one open and the protein strands are closely knit–no big air holes here, the bread is tightly formed.
It was lunchtime when I arrived and one nice thing about the shop was that owner Blake Joffe (I recognized him from the Oakland mag photos) noticed me standing in line waiting and actually emerged from the kitchen to give me a menu. It’s nice to not only get that kind of service but to get to interact with owners, I think. They also serve a variety of cream cheese flavors and both breakfast and lunch sandwiches. I’m looking forward to going back to try their salmon cream cheese–lots of people don’t like this stuff, but it is far and away my favorite bagel topping, so I definitely must try it. They are also currently doing a catering menu for Passover, complete with matzoh ball soup, haroset, etc. Another thing I noticed that seems to be popping up all over Oakland eateries is that they are canning some of their own homemade goods for sale on premises. One was pickles, but what really impressed me was that they are canning and selling their own schmaltz, i.e. chicken fat!! Schmaltz is a staple in Jewish cooking and the one thing I’ve left out of my own shiksha matzoh balls when I’ve made them (and they’re still pretty darned good, even for a shiksha, if I do say so myself). Knowing that I can drive over to Beauty’s to pick up some schmaltz to try in my annual batch of matzoh ball soup is a tempting proposition. I’m looking forward to many more trips there for some real bagels, to check out their soups and sandwiches and for a little taste of Montreal in the Bay Area.
Beauty’s Bagel Shop
3838 Telegraph Ave., Oakland