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The bagel war of Montreal

Fairmount and St. Viateur Bagels in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood of Montreal
Fairmount and St Viateur Bagels have been in competition since the 1940s

By Katie Beck
BBC World News America, Montreal

Nestled in among the Hassidic Jews and the hipsters in the historically Jewish neighbourhood of Le Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal a quiet battle has been raging for over five decades.

The war is on. The prize? The title for Montreal's best bagel and there are two serious contenders. St Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel, situated a block apart, each claim to be the best bagelry in a city known for its distinctive style of bagels.

The story tracing the origins of Montreal bagels is more folklore than fact and has been smoothed over with years of history. In 1910, according to some, two Jewish immigrants arrived in Montreal and opened a bagel shop in the Mile End neighbourhood, bringing the old world traditions of hand rolling bagels and baking them in a wood burning oven to Canada for the first time.

Then, as the story goes, the two men had a falling out in the mid 1950s, parted ways and both went on to have successful businesses with loyal customers.

History of the bagel
1683: First produced by an Austrian baker
1880s: Reaches North America in with Eastern European immigrants
1993: Americans eat one bagel every two weeks on average

One upstart

Erwin Shlafman, the current owner of Fairmount Bagel said there is no dispute over the fact that it was his grandfather, Isadore Shlafman, who brought the first bagel to Montreal.

"My grandfather arrived in Montreal in 1910. He looked for a job as a bagel baker but there weren't any. So he opened his own bakery," Shlafman explained.

"Then in 1957, a former employee of my Grandfather who had worked for him opened up the St Viateur bakery."

According to Shlafman, "It is the Fairmount bakery that is the origin of bagels in Montreal - St Viateur is the upstart."

A couple of generations later, both bagel shops are still thriving. Each is open 24 hours a day, churning out a steady stream of bagels being rolled, boiled, and baked to perfection.

Each shop boasts a steady line of eager customers, that often snake out the door and onto the sidewalks.

Robert Morena, the jovial owner of St Viateur Bagel, said the rivalry between the bakeries is civil.

"We have an amicable relationship. We have our customers, they have theirs and we don't share many. Whoever eats Fairmount eats Fairmount and the St. Viateur loyalists eat ours."


Robert Morena, the owner of St Viateur Bagels, gives a tour of his shop

But there are those who do take sides. One regular customer said she has been buying her bagels from St Viateur's for 40 years.

"It's the best, I'm telling you," said the regular. "I have been here for a long long time and they are wonderful. I used to go to Fairmount but here is the best. The best, the best, the best."

Morena certainly agrees with that statement.

"We were nominated for one of the Wonders of the World and people were voting like crazy. Montrealers love this place. We give them the best bagel and they keep coming back," he said.

Around the corner, Fairmount Bagel has equally enthusiastic customers. Raymond Younian, who is familiar with both, said there is no contest.

Fairmount Bagel
Fairmont customers enjoy the huge variety of bagels

"These are the best," said Younian holding a brown paper bag full of Fairmount bagels. "I have come here, I've tried St Viateur Bagel and other bagel shops but we always make a detour to come here to Fairmount bagel. You cannot compare the taste to any other bagel."

Shlafman said the secret to his success has been passed down through the generations.

"In my place we are still making bagels the way my grandfather made them. My grandfather taught my father and my father taught me."

With so much history behind them, these bakeries have become beloved landmarks in Montreal and for some, choosing between a Fairmount or a St Viateur bagel is tantamount to a betrayal.

Robert Miller who frequents both bakeries refused to say which he prefers. "I'm not going to go there. They've both been in business for a long long time and I'm not going to go there."

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