Tradition is worth a taste Bakeries: Bagels are made in the old-fashioned way in Montreal.

March 31, 1996|By David Rosenthal | David Rosenthal,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL -- They come from the fashionable west end, and from the western provinces, making a pilgrimage of sorts.

Back to the old neighborhood, back for a taste found nowhere but Mile End.

Bagels.

White seed or black seed. Or, these days, cannelle (cinnamon) et raisin.

But always made the old way, rolled thin by hand and baked in wood-burning ovens that provide a distinctive flavor.

"Whether you're French or English, bagels are Montreal food. They're a bridge, a meeting point," says Michel Zampa, a former Mile End resident who recalls buying dozens of bagels and putting them on a bus bound for relatives hundreds of miles west, in Windsor, Ontario.

Mile End, northeast of Mont-Royal, the mountain that overlooks the city, was the stopping point for thousands of Jewish %J immigrants during the first half of the century.

It gained a measure of fame as the setting for Mordecai Richler novels including "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz." The 1974 film version of that book featured a manic, young Richard Dreyfuss -- as well as a cameo by a neighborhood bagel shop.

"It felt very much like a little village. The schools were Protestant, English-speaking, but 95 percent of the students were Jews," says filmmaker Garry Beitel, who grew up in the neighborhood to which his parents had User.Event 7 was not expected here! immigrated in 1948.

Today, the neighborhood offers a mix of Greeks, Italians and other immigrants, and young French-speaking Quebecers. Many of the Jewish families have moved away, although thousands of Hasidic Jews remain -- Mr. Beitel made a film, "Bonjour Shalom," about their relationship with mostly French Canadian neighbors.

But the bagel shops haven't changed for decades. No blond wood or ferns here -- just tile and brick and a sweet, woody scent.

At Fairmount, a cramped takeout shop that turns out an estimated 5 million bagels annually, customers crowd against a small counter to place orders.

Behind the counter, a worker slices strips from a large slab of dough. He rolls the strips on a wooden counter until they are thin. He chops off a small piece and wraps it around his wrist in a quick motion, forming a bagel.

The bagels are boiled in a vat, and most are dipped into a mountain of sesame seeds. They are then arranged on a long wooden board and slid into the oven.

"It's an art, like learning to play an instrument or learning to paint," says Irwin Shlafman, whose grandfather founded the bakery.

Mr. Shlafman started in the business in 1979, at age 23. His first job: scraping the floors and bringing in wood for the oven.

White seed (sesame) is the flavor of choice among Montrealers -- large bags of the seeds are stacked in the bagel shops.

But many prefer black seed, or poppy, bagels, which look very different from the American version.

The bagels are dipped by hand into a pile of the seeds, as a doughnut is dipped into a cup of coffee. If that's not enough, you can order a "double black," a second dip. Or, for the hardy, an "all black."

Fairmount has added other flavors to the white and black standbys. Blueberry and whole-grain bagels are new in the lineup, and Mr. Shlafman says he may even try a sun-dried tomato bagel.

But at the nearby St. Viateur Bagel Shop, such experimentation is frowned upon.

Vince Morena, whose father owns the business, scoffs at American bagel shops for their eagerness to embrace chocolate chip bagels and other flavors.

"Bagel places in the States are becoming doughnut shops with all those flavors. It's a big mistake," says Mr. Morena, 24, who started working in the store at age 13, serving customers and sweeping floors part-time.

St. Viateur, which has a second, smaller bakery down the street, plans to expand further -- and make some concessions to modern tastes. New shops -- on Avenue Mont-Royal in Montreal and in Burlington, Vt. -- will feature more choices, including cinnamon and raisin.

But the landmark bakery, which started in 1957 and is open all day, every day, still turns out only sesame and poppy bagels -- by the millions.

"We built the bagel name in Canada. When people think bagel, they think St. Viateur," Vince's father, Joe Morena, says, adding that he has never eaten anyone else's bagels.

The Morenas will put their products up in a bagel-to-bagel contest with the New York style any day.

"Ours are a little lighter, a little sweeter, a little crispier," Vince Morena says.

"Ours have a crispy crust that cracks when you bite into it," says Mr. Shlafman. "American bagels are more like bread than like bagels."

In truth, the taste of a Montreal bagel takes some getting used to. They tend to be thinner, and chewier, than New York-style bagels.

The crust is, indeed, crisp and delicious.

And the taste inside is slightly smoky, from the hardwood-fired ovens. Yet it's still rather plain, much like the inside of a soft pretzel. Maybe it's the touch of malt in the recipe, or the lack of salt.

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