Mim meets Montreal

Photo by Sara Baron-Goodman

Episode 6: In which Mim realizes that bagels are holy

It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, it’s raining and all the good bars on St-Laurent Blvd. are closing. Time to go home, right? Wrong. Why? Bagels.

“Seriously, what’s so special about a bread roll with a hole in the middle?” I asked my friends as we walked in the windy, minus-one degree weather.

I’d asked a similar question about poutine when I first arrived in Quebec—“it’s just chips and gravy. Why the hype?” That’s when I learnt that Montreal could turn something so ordinary into a magical gastronomical experience.

My friends just said, “you’ll see,” and I trudged along behind them in the opposite direction of home.

As we stepped into the St-Viateur bagel store the warmth engulfed me like a giant hug. Sounds lame, I know, but with the increasingly cold weather, I have developed a new appreciation for well-heated spaces. My Australian mentality of “ah, suck it up mate, it ain’t that cold,” is beginning not to suffice.

Photo by Sara Baron-Goodman

From the wood fire oven drifted a sweet fragrance so homely and reassuring that I immediately realised that there was more to a bagel than a bagel. There was the experience of being surrounded by bagels. I was informed that they also serve another function in winter. Pop a few hot ones in a paper bag and, voila, you’ve got a (temporary) portable heating device—simply stick your face into the bag and inhale the goodness.

It was an event: witnessing bagels being made from scratch. One man kneaded the dough and rolled it into rings with an effortlessness that was like folding bed sheets. After the dough had been tossed in sesame seeds and placed into the oven, which appeared to house over 50 bagels comfortably, the second man used a several meter long wooden plank to flip over a dozen at a time. He didn’t use a timer so how could he possibly know when each of those 50 bagels were ready? It appeared that he just knew.

The young man at the counter was intrigued by the fact that I was Australian, but even more so by the unfortunate situation of Australia’s bagelessness. Back home, bagels are about as popular and as fresh as sliced supermarket white bread. Despite the recent opening of a couple of specialty bagel cafes in Melbourne and Sydney, the modest roll-with-a-hole still remains a novelty and there are certainly no 24-hour venues to satisfy a midnight bagel craving.

My friend bought half a dozen fresh steaming-hot sesame bagels and gave me one. I took my first bite and, I tell you, it was like eating a warm cloud. Before I had the chance to go to the counter and buy a second, the young server had walked over to us and handed me a bag of three. “On the house,” he said.

In the time it took my friend to eat half of his bagel, I had inhaled three: one third of my daily caloric intake within a number of minutes. But, just like the poutine, it was all worth it: the sesame goodness, the soft dough, the perfect crusty crunch. My friends were right: nothing beats a fresh bagel.

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