Yesterday I was lucky enough to be part of a 10 member panel in a blind taste test of bagels. A month ago I was part of another trial involving Hamilton "Montreal-Style" bagels. This time, it included Hamilton and Montreal bagels and the jury was divided by 2 with 5 being in each city tasting the same bagels similtaneously baked from the same batch. Air Canada participated in the event by flying fresh bagels between the two cities.
With no surprise, it was a Montreal bagel baked by Fairmont which came out on top. I think each one of the judges on the Hamilton side sheepishly arrived at the low key event on the shores of Hamilton Harbour at the Chamber of Commerce knowing we were going to be massacred.
Surprisingly, while taste testers on our side gave Fairmont the number one spot, the second place rank went to our own Fortino's supermarket brand, beating out the ones served up by St. Viateur by a longshot. In fact, the St. Viateur bagel was hard, sweaty, bland, and "innertuby". So while the taste test concluded Fairmont being on top, it also lead me to conclude that there there is no longer any such thing as the "Montreal Bagel", instead let's call the most supreme bagel what it is, the "Fairmont" bagel. Chew on that Montreal.
I based my scores on 5 merits: chewiness, sweetness, moistness, smokiness and overall taste. While Fortino's did well on its sesame seed and poppy seed bagels, its hybrid powder sugar/cinnamon things which actually began this whole debate just weren't rankable. There were no Montreal bagels of the like to compare them with so I just didn't bother to rate them. They were like dense stale Dunkin donuts.
Both the Spectator and the Gazette printed accounts of the taste test. Here they are:
From the Hamilton Spectator
In Bagel Battle, Montreal judges heap praise on their own
Steve Arnold The Hamilton Spectator
Montreal bagels emerged as the narrow favourite of Hamilton judges in the Great Bagel Battle fought yesterday.
A panel of judges in each city gathered for a taste-bud-to-taste-bud challenge following howls of outrage from Montreal purists after a visitor spied a "Montreal style" bagel in a Hamilton supermarket coated in icing sugar.
In the final outcome, Hamilton's five judges gave first-place honours to bagels from Montreal's Fairmount and St. Viateur bagel bakeries. Their second pick was from a local Fortinos.
The six Montreal judges were less charitable, however, ranking their products first by a distant margin. After melding the two scoring systems used, Hamilton gave its bagels 5.7 out of 10 while the Montreal products earned a score of 6.6. The Montreal scores were 8.6 for their products and only 3.6 for the Hamilton entries.
John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and one of the local judges, said the fact a local product placed second was an important victory.
"It's like getting the silver medal in the Olympics," he said. "It really shows that a local entrepreneur can compete successfully."
In Hamilton, the baked-in sweetness of the Montreal bagels enslaved the palates of four of the judges. (The fifth judged preferred the New York style products of Hamilton's Locke Street Bakery.) The sweetness is the result of boiling the dough in honey water before baking it.
Irwin Shlafman, the third generation of his family to own the Fairmount bakery since its founding in 1919, said his secret is techniques unchanged since his grandfather's time.
"It's how long we ferment the dough, the time between taking it from the mixer and working with it, how long we boil them," he said. "These are the proper techniques for making a bagel, but they're not adhered to anymore because they're tedious and take time."
Montreal loyalists weren't shy in crowing about their victory.
"It was very easy for us to tell them apart," said Thomas Jelonek, the McMaster-trained engineer who sparked the brouhaha by photographing an icing sugar-caked product while visiting the city in December.
"To be very honest with you, we thought the ones from Hamilton were fairly bland," he said. "If they were my only option, I'd go bagel-less."
The iced Fortinos products came in for special scorn.
"I tried the cinnamon sugar one and I thought it was pretty horrendous," he said. "It tasted like a breaded candy cane."
Ryk Edelstein, who spearheaded the Montreal team, was a little more generous.
"The Fortinos cinnamon dough ring things were certainly not bagels. They were more cakey than doughy, but were not too bad," he said in an e-mail.
"I would not eat them for (breakfast), but I certainly did not hurl."
The competition was made possible with the help of Air Canada Jazz, which provided a round-trip ticket allowing three dozen bagels from Montreal to be picked up fresh yesterday morning and flown here to be exchanged for the same number from Hamilton.
Judges in Hamilton included Dolbec, political consultant Milt Lewis, Josie Trlep, Air Canada Jazz station agent at Hamilton Airport, Spectator cartoonist Graeme MacKay and reporter Steve Arnold. The competition was taped by Cable 14.
From the Montreal Gazette
"This is not a bagel - it's a bloody cake"
Bill Brownstein, The Gazette
Published: Wednesday, February 27
A group of Montrealers learned two things yesterday: Hamilton has an airport, and Hamilton had best stick to making steel, not bagels.
In what will come as no surprise to any Montrealer, our bagels reigned - extremely - supreme in a blind taste test over the best that Steeltown could bake. It wasn't even close. Even a jury of Hamiltonians had to bite the bullet - an apt description for their bagels - and admit that ours were better.
Two teams from Montreal and Hamilton conducted this taste-test simultaneously yesterday in their respective cities - which is how a few of the Montrealers became aware that Hamilton has an airport, an international one to boot. Poppy and sesame-seed bagels from the Fairmount and St. Viateur bakeries were sent winging their way on an Air Canada plane to Hamilton, while poppy and sesame-seed bagels from Hamilton's best, Fortinos and Locke Street Bakery, were flown here.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., the two teams attacked the batches of bagels. The judges were told the origin of the bagels only following the tasting.
The Montreal panel was comprised of information technologists and foodies Ryk Edelstein and Thomas Jelonek, Gazette editor-in-chief Andrew Phillips, Gazette editorial cartoonist Terry Mosher (Aislin), Gazette columnist/scientist/author Dr. Joe Schwarcz, and myself. The five-person Hamilton team included Stephen Arnold, a business reporter at the Hamilton Spectator, Spectator editorial cartoonist Graeme MacKay, and John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.
After the judges had scored the bagels from the two cities, we took an average of the respective results to come to our final tabulation.
For the Montreal judges it was no contest, with our bagels rating 8.63 out of 10 compared to Hamilton's at 3.58.
The Hamilton judges' ratings were a little less lopsided - but we must forgive them, for they mostly knew not from a decent bagel. They gave the Montreal bagels a score of 6.60 to Hamilton's 5.70. "I can say with some degree of certainty that there was no steel in their bagels," said Schwarcz, author of An Apple a Day, a bestseller on The Gazette's weekly book list. "On the other hand, they tasted rather rubbery. Maybe there was some Kevlar in them."
"Really, it's completely unfair to compare the two," said Phillips. "It's like putting up the National Hockey League against the Mexican Junior Hockey League."
"I would rather go bagel-less than eat a Hamilton bagel," said Jelonek. "It was like eating a tubular bread."
"The Montreal bagels were pure Nirvana compared to Hamilton's," said Edelstein. "Theirs were just leaden." "Talk about bland," said Mosher. "But you'll have to excuse me now. I'm not feeling well." This bagel battle came about when my civic pride was put to the test after learning that Fortinos, a Hamilton supermarket, was selling a reddish, sugar-coated cinnamon concoction and labelling it a "Montreal-style" bagel.
Jury member Jelonek had photographed the offending Fortinos sugar-bagel in its natural environment and posted it on the Chowhound website. As a former Hamiltonian now living in Montreal, he felt he owed it to his adopted city and to the planet as a whole to show what can go wrong in baked goods.
After I wrote about Jelonek's discovery, the Hamilton Spectator took note and published a story of its own. Then the chamber of commerce got involved. But not only would the chamber not agree to force Fortinos to remove the "Montreal-style" in advertising this alleged bagel, but CEO Dolbec set the stage for the battle: "As a matter of civic pride, I'm more than willing to stack our bagels against theirs."
Dolbec should have known better. He is a former Montrealer. He should also have known that Montreal beat back a similar challenge from Toronto a little over a year ago. During that tasteoff, the Hogtown and Montreal judges agreed that our bagels are far superior and that theirs are essentially rolls with holes and no soul.
The point is that the integrity of the Montreal-style bagel must be preserved. We can't have upstarts from around the coutry claiming their bagels are Montreal-style when they are little more than sugared doughnuts - hard ones at that.
Joe Morena, co-owner of St. Viateur Bagel Bakery, is not amused at ROC bakers trying to cash in on the Montreal bagel with bogus offerings.
"A true Montreal bagel has to be made by hand, then boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-burning oven," Morena says. "It can never be made by machine." Much less be suffocated in icing sugar.
As for the offending sugar-bagel from Fortinos, it also was sent to Montreal yesterday for our tasting - um - pleasure. They probably needed a forklift to hoist that sucker aboard the plane. It was, as expected, an abomination.
But don't just take my word for it.
"This is not a bagel - it's a bloody cake," said a clearly horrified Edelstein.
"I've just committed a crime in eating this," Schwarcz chimed in. "It's not a bagel. It's not a doughnut. It's not edible. But it's just given me an idea: the Hamilton Bagel Diet. Taste it once and you will never eat another one again."
"There is nothing printable in what I have to say about this," said Phillips. "On the other hand, I want the people of Hamilton to know they have a lovely city and that they are a lovely people. And they make very nice coffee mugs." (The Hamilton folks had sent along travel mugs as a gift.) True enough. We have nothing personal against Steeltown. Why, we share a common adversary, Hogtown, a city mercifully closer to them than to us.
The Hamilton judges took their loss with grace. But their bagels bite and they must now pay the price for their unmitigated chutzpah in challenging us and then losing. We're thinking they should sport T-shirts emblazoned with something along the lines of: "We Hamiltonians Are Not Worthy. We Will Never Mess With Montreal Bagels Again."
And let this be a lesson to any other city that thinks it can match our bagel mastery.