As Montreal as? The mystery of the cheese bagel – Montreal Gazette

Posted By on May 2, 2022

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A lot has been written about the famous Montreal bagel, but its much harder to trace the origins of its cheesy cousin.

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In the back room of Sollys Catering company headquarters in Lachine, the bakers are busy they make about 250,000 a year.

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First, they roll out the dough and fill it with sweetened farmers cheese. Then they form each one into that signature horseshoe shape and bake until golden brown.

Its the cheese bagel not to be confused with the Montreal bagel made famous by Fairmont and St-Viateur bakeries. Those are round and schmeared with cream cheese. The cheese bagel, often enjoyed with jam or sour cream, is an entirely different delicacy.

Though its name sounds misleading, cheese bagel is the anglicized version of the Yiddish term cheese bagelach, which means bagel-like but not entirely a bagel.

Beyond that, the rest is all a bit mysterious. A lot has been written about the history of the Montreal bagel, but its much harder to trace the origins of its cheesy cousin.

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Both have their roots in Montreal Ashkenazi Jewish food culture. In the early 1900s, approximately 53,000 Jews immigrated here, fleeing persecution and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Many settled around St-Laurent Blvd. and brought their favourite treats along with them. The traditional bagel, the smoked meat sandwiches they became superstars and known beyond the city.

I dont know that the cheese bagel is known outside of Montreal, said food historian and writer Lara Rabinovitch.

Food history, especially Canadian food history, is still young as a field of study, which is another reason why its so difficult to track down the origins of the cheese bagel, Rabinovitch said.

It takes years and years and decades of work and time to get these stories, she explained, but thats not to say that the information is not out there to be found. We dont have it at our fingertips yet.

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When asked about the impressive staying power of the cheese bagel as a Montreal staple, Rabinovitch explained that as with many other foods, the nostalgia might, in large part, account for its popularity.

I think memory and tradition play a big part in peoples affection, she said.

Food writer Sarah Musgrave is an example. She associates cheese bagels with her childhood, recalling trips to Cantor Bakery and pastry crumbs always falling onto her pants as she ate them.

Theyre almost too sweet, she said.

As for its origin story, Musgrave jokingly proposes the theory that a cheese bagel might be a blintz that got stepped on.

Or maybe one day a baker was making both blintzes and knishes, and accidentally used blintz filling in their knish? Its anyones guess. For context, a blintz is another Ashkenazi Jewish treat filled with sweet cheese, this time wrapped in a crepe, and a knish is a delicacy of seasoned potatoes encased in puff pastry.

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Kat Romanow, a Jewish food historian and the creator of Beyond the Bagel, a walking tour that highlights Montreals Jewish delicacies, says theres no scholarship on the history of the cheese bagel but she has some theories shes willing to share.

Her first one: its a less fussy version of the cheese danish. Romanow explained that their fillings are similar but the cheese danish has a heftier dough that combines the cheese bagels puff pastry with sweet yeast dough. She noted that while the danish has intricate designs, the cheese bagels horseshoe shape is much easier to form, which could be why it was created.

The cheese danish originated in Austria, said Romanow. It was later popularized in Denmark before arriving in North America, she explained. She wonders whether it might have spawned the cheese bagel at some point on this journey.

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Romanows other theory is that the cheese bagel is a more esthetic version of a cheese knish, a version of a knish filled with sweet cheese instead of potato that gained popularity in Eastern Europe.

A knish is not all that pretty, she said. A cheese bagel is much nicer to look at.

Romanow noted that before modern dairy farming began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, cheese was most readily available in Eastern Europe in the spring, just around the time of the Jewish holiday Shavuot, which falls from June 4-6 this year. Since it is traditional to only eat dairy on this holiday, the cheese knish became a popular seasonal dish.

Romanow speculates that to make the knish into a more presentable Shavuot treat, someone transformed the round pastry into the horseshoe-shaped cheese bagel as we now know it.

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Still hungry for more details about the cheese bagels history?

Helen Scharf, 98, recalls eating cheese bagels as soon as I was able to chew.

She immigrated to Montreal at the age of 16, managing to leave Ottynia, Poland, a small town that is now part of Ukraine, months before the start of the Second World War. She remembers her mother used to make cheese bagels from scratch as a special treat on Fridays in preparation for the Sabbath. Because meat was so expensive, her family, along with many others, ate mostly dairy, Scharf said.

The shape of pastry depended on the mood of my mom and grandma, but the horseshoe definitely existed in Europe, she said.

Once in Montreal, Scharf said she became Americanized and bought cheese bagels from the Arena Bakery near her St-Urbain St. home instead of making them. Now, she enjoys them from Kosher Quality on Victoria Ave., which is closer to where she currently lives.

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Mitchell Kadanoff, owner of Sollys Catering, says that cheese bagels are among his most coveted products.

I think the popularity of the cheese bagel is that its easy to eat, he said. You can eat it as a snack. You can eat as a lunch. You can eat it hot. You can eat it cold. You can eat it room temperature.

Sollys also supplies outlets in Toronto and Ottawa, he says, to meet the demand from ex-Montrealers.

He makes so many of them, he says, I think I could safely say that were the number one cheese bagel producer in the world.

Hes got plenty of company. Other places to pick some up are Dizzs Bagel & Deli, Cte St-Luc Bagel and Snowdon Deli.

Ian Morantz, owner of Snowdon Deli, says he sells nine to 10 dozen a day. Its one of our staples, he said. His deli has been making them since the 1960s.

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Our original one was actually an S-shape, he said. Now, theyre a traditional horseshoe.

We might not be able to solve all the mysteries of the cheese bagels history just yet, but as Romanow explains, its existence shouldnt stay one of Montreals best-kept secrets as it is truly, truly delicious and unique.

We need to talk more about our Montreal cheese bagels, she says, noting that they deserve a place in the canon of Montreal Jewish foods alongside Montreal bagels and smoked meat.

Or they can simply remain Montreals best-kept secret more for us!

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As Montreal as? The mystery of the cheese bagel - Montreal Gazette

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