How do you like your bagels? Chewy and dense, or soft and springy?

You can top them with smoked salmon, lather on the cream cheese, stuff them for sandwiches, or toast them and watch the butter melt all over the little nooks and crannies. We all love a good bagel!

In Niagara, you’ll find some bakery-made bagels and mass-produced bagels that you buy off the grocery store shelf. We don’t have a lot of choice in the region, so we simply pick them as an alternative to bread. But there is a bagel cult that exists outside the region, and bagel aficionados think nothing of travelling for a great bagel.

While there are literally dozens and dozens of bagel varieties from sesame seed to roasted garlic and onion, there are only two bagel types: the Montreal-style bagel and the New York (City)-style bagel.

In a country that invented butter tarts, and bathes in maple syrup every spring, I suppose it comes as no surprise that we like our bagels sweet. The Montreal-style bagel is made with sugar and malt (but no salt), and is boiled in honey-sweetened water. They’re smaller, sweeter bagels that you’ll find either plain or finished with black poppy seeds or white sesame seeds.

In Montreal, there are two bagel institutions that are destinations for bagel lovers around the world: Fairmont Bagel and St. Viateur Bagel.

The iconic St Viateur Bagel Shop on 263 St Viateur West in Montreal is over 50 years old, and shows every day of its age. The bakery that hasn’t had a face-lift since it opened doesn’t seem to dissuade the thousands of customers who come in to buy fresh, hot bagels. Once inside the door, the aromas take over and all you want to do is jump right into the giant basket of hot bagels at the end of the oven ramp.

This location is so popular, the bakery and retail store never closes and this little shop sells more than 10,000 bagels every single day! Some say the secret is in the design of the wood oven and how it lends the perfect amount of smoke to each bagel. The oven was built by founder Myer Lewkowicz in 1957 when he brought his own recipe and trade from Poland. Today, the company is owned by Myer’s long-time partner, Joe Morena. Joe himself is a long-time, respected bagel baker, and is serious about keeping Myer’s bagel secrets and traditions intact. There are four St. Viateur bakeries and two bagel cafes in Montreal, but the original one —the one you want to go to— is the shop named after the street it’s located on. If you can’t get there to experience the aromas, you can order them online at www.stviateurbagel.com, but it’s just not the same as eating one right out of the oven.

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Fairmont Bagel was opened in 1919 by Isadore Shlafman, and is Montreal’s original bagel bakery. At first, he made hand-rolled, slightly sweet, wood-fired bagels out of a tiny shop at the end of a small laneway. Thirty years later, Isadore bought a house on Fairmont Street and built a larger wood-burning oven in the back kitchen. That’s when he renamed the business. Isadore and his family lived upstairs while the bagels boiled and baked downstairs.

What sets bagels apart from other bread is that they’re boiled in water. Throwing bread in water may seem strange, but the water doesn’t actually penetrate very far into the bread. The starch on the exterior quickly gels and forms a barrier, which sets the crust prior to baking. The longer they are boiled, the thicker and more elastic the crust becomes. It also means bagels don’t really rise like traditional bread because the crust is sealed in the boiling process. This makes the interior naturally more dense and chewy than traditional bread.

One secret I couldn’t uncover is the kind of flour used to make these bagels. I tried to make bagels in my kitchen, but it simply wouldn’t work well and I think it’s the flour. But try as I did, no one would tell me what flour they used other than it’s a high-protein flour. I’ll guess I’ll just have to enjoy them on my annual trips to Montreal.

Fairmont Bagel is now run by the grandchildren of Isadore Shlafman who still hand-roll, boil, and bake bagels in the same way their grandfather did almost a century ago. Fairmont Bagel makes over 20 different varieties of bagels from Pesto and Black Olive to Cinnamon and Raisin. Most come with warnings of powerful flavours, especially the onion and garlic varieties and they’re right. (www.fairmountbagel.com)

There are a few other Montreal bagel factories worth mentioning for their authentic Montreal-style bagels. Mount Royal Bagel Bakery, at 709 Lucerne, is the only traditionally made, wood-fired Kosher Bagel in the world, and Cote-Saint-Luc Bagel makes their own house-made cream cheese for their smoky, dense bagels.

Toronto is not known for their bagels, but if you can’t get to Montreal or New York City, a warm bagel from St. Urbain Bagel on 91 Front Street East will certainly inspire you to travel further. I would normally recommend Haymishe Bagel Shop on Bathurst for the closest and best New York-style bagel, but unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in January and 65-year old owner Motti Sorek is not certain if he will rebuild.

In New York City, they use salt and malt (but no sugar) to make bagel dough and they boil it in plain, unsweetened water. They’re puffier and larger with a smaller hole (sometimes no hole at all) and a moist crust. They’re also topped with black poppy seeds or white sesame seeds.

H & H Bagels on the Upper West Side was probably one of the most famous bagel bakeries. It was Tom Hanks’ local bagel place in the movie, You’ve Got Mail. Unfortunately, it’s now closed, but near Time Square is a 37-year old iconic bagel bakery called Ess-a-Bagel. Gene and Florence Wilpon and her brother Aaron Wenzelberg came to New York with strong Austrian baking roots that have earned them the title of the best bagels in New York City!

When in NYC, plan on taking Ben and Marty’s Bagel Tour. Ben once drove a New York City Checker Cab and Marty, an actor, voiced the title character on Courage the Cowardly Dog and appeared on Law & Order. They offer tours that show and describe “the real New York,” past and present, neighborhood by neighborhood. Every tour begins with hot, fresh bagels. (www.bandmbageltours.com)

I’ve compiled a bit of a checklist to rate an authentic bagel. All great bagels are boiled, and then baked in a wood-fired oven – no exceptions here. A wood-fired oven smokes the bagels for the ultimate in complex flavours. To taste the true flavours of an authentic bagel, you must bite into a warm, unadulterated bagel. Now if that doesn’t get you excited, nothing will!

Whether Montreal or New York, everyone agrees the best bagels are the ones that are still warm from the oven. After that, there are heated debates on what makes a great bagel. In Montreal, they’re hard-core bagel eaters who love their bagels denser with a firm chew. They load them simply with a variety of cream cheese spreads or smoked fish with accompaniments like red onion, dill vinaigrette, or capers. In New York City, they seem to prefer an earthier bagel made into a sandwich. Perhaps this is why the bagel is softer and the hole smaller. They pile a variety of meats and toppings on top. So how do you like your bagel?

[box type=”shadow”]Lynn Ogryzlo is a food and travel writer for REV Magazines, an award winning author and Ontario’s Local Food Ambassador. You can reach Lynn for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com. [/box]