Montreal Bagel and Smoked Meat – the real deal

Mtl Bagel and Smoked Meat

Sometimes, the world is all too serious and what is needed is a little distraction — such as food or music.  For Jews, both food and music are integral to who we are.  As mentioned in an earlier post on Remembering and Preparing to Remember; there are foods associated with the observance of a specific holiday or in the case of some observances, the absence of food (during a time of fasting).

Music too is integral for us as Jews.  We have the Cantorial chants of the “chazzen” of our synagogue services as well as the liturgical melodies of our “bruchas”, or blessings — and many different melodies exist for a single prayer in our “Siddur” or prayer books, depending on whether one is Sephardi / Mizrahi (Spanish / Middle Eastern) or Ashkenazi (Eastern European).

But then there is the food and music of “home”; not our ancestral home, but the Jewish community in which we grew up and for us, as Montreal Jews that food is epitomized by bagel and smoked meat.  

First of all, let’s clarify something; the plural of bagel is bagel, not bagels.  There is no “s”.  One can tell a Montreal Jew by the way they order them “I’ll have a dozen white seed bagel and…”.

Yes, “white seed” — as in sesame seed and “dark seed”, as in poppy seed.  To Montreal Jews, there are only two kinds of bagel; white seed and dark seed. There is no such thing as a cinnamon bagel or a blueberry bagel or a cheese bagel…well there is such a thing as a ‘cheese bagel’ or ‘cheese bagelach’ but that is something entirely different than a cheese-flavoured bagel.

To a Montrealer – a bagel as not a roll with a hole.

A bagel is hand rolled into shape,  poached in boiling honey-infused water, rolled in either ‘white seed’ or ‘dark seed’ and then baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is slightly sweet, chewy, ever-so-lightly smokey Montreal bagel.

But which bagel?  Fairmount or St. Viateur?

What makes Montreal bagel’s history something that exemplifies the idea of “two Jews, three opinions” is that there is this irreconcilable unspoken competition between the two original bagel bakeries in the Jewish Quarter and every Montreal Jew from the elders to the youth has a very distinct preference. For me, it is St. Viateur.

Which one is Montreal’s first bagel bakery?

On that too, no one agrees whether it was Fairmount or St-Viateur who brought the first bagel to the Montreal.

Records say that in 1919, Isadore Schlafman set up shop as the “Montreal Bagel Bakery” in an alley behind St-Laurent Boulevard, also known as “the Main” while Chaim Seligman was traveling all over the city with his horse-drawn carriage, selling bagel by the dozen.

All was well until Seligman and Schlafman’s sons quarreled and parted ways.  Schlafman bought a cottage on Fairmount Street in 1949, buidling a wood burning oven and setting up shop as “The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery”.


Soon after, in 1957, Seligman abandoned selling bagel in horse drawn carriages and opened “St-Viateur Bagel Shop” with Holocaust survivor and Krakow-born Myer Lewkowicz.


The rest is history…

Then there is “smoked meat” — real Montreal Smoked Meat.

Like Montreal bagel, what ‘smoked meat’ is to a Montreal Jew is a far cry from what it is to one who buys “Montreal Smoked Meat” in the deli-counter elsewhere.  This is Montreal smoked meat;


It is always served warm and is kept moist in a steamer.  It is never served lean and Montrealers know if someone is from elsewhere when they order a lean smoked meat.

First of all, what is Montreal Smoked Meat?

Smoked meat is made from a cut of beef known as brisket which is salted and cured in a brine in a barrel with spices. The brisket is allowed to absorb the flavors for over a week and is then hot smoked to cook through, and finally steamed to completion. Though somewhat similar in method to New York pastrami, Montreal smoked meat is cured in a seasoning mixture with lots of cracked black peppercorn as well as coriander seed, garlic, and yellow mustard seeds with just a touch of sugar.

The final product is served warm, cut by hand from the brisket and piled approximately 2″ high on slightly warm crusty light rye bread, generously slathered with yellow baseball mustard.  “Kimmel bread”,  which is a light crusty rye bread exactly the same as above has caraway seed in it, but is never used to serve an authentic Montreal smoked meat sandwich.

As mentioned, no self respecting Jewish Montrealer would order a lean smoked meat! Medium fat smoked meat is the most popular and is cut from the middle of the brisket. Old-Fashioned smoked meat is a slightly fattier cut and served a bit thicker than a medium. Fat smoked meat is by far the tastiest, but the texture is an acquired taste.

Then there is speck! Speck is a thinly sliced piece of cured fat that is made from the top layer of fat cut from a pickled brisket, dusted in Hungarian-style paprika, double smoked and then grilled. It is then sliced very thinly and eaten inside a medium smoked meat, or served on its own, on a slice of rye bread with yellow mustard.

The origins of Montreal Smoked Meat is as illusive as the Montreal bagel.

We do know the creators are Ashkenazi, from the Jewish Diaspora from Romania or Eastern Europe — but whether the it was a butcher named Aaron Sanft who arrived from Iași, Romania in 1884 and founded Montreal’s first kosher butchershop and making smoked meat in the Romanian style similar to pastırma,  Benjamin Kravitz, who founded Ben’s Delicatessen in 1910 or Itzak Rudman who in 1902 sold his own cured and smoked briskets on de Bullion Street in Montreal, no one knows for sure.  There is a rumor that Montreal Smoked Meat came from New York with Herman Roth in 1908, which would imply that it was an adaptation of New York pastrami, after all.

Who makes the best Montreal Smoked Meat is another one of those topics that is hotly debated amongst Montreal Jews.  Some say it is Schwartz’s (also known as Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen) on St. Laurence (also called “the Main).

Others say it is The Main, almost directly across St. Laurence street.

Schwartz with line up

For me, it is Schwartz’s; an ‘old fashioned’ with speck, a half sour (pickle), a serving of extra-dry karnatzle (like a garlicy Jewish pepperoni — all beef, of course) and a black cherry (soda).

Yes, there is always that line-up outside from opening until closing, summer, fall and even in a snow storm or bitter cold. Just like the two bagel “factories”; always a line up!

Since the 19th century, bagel and smoked meat is at the heart of Montreal Jewish food and Jewish social life too, captured in Don Bell’s classic 1973 book “Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory”.

Once you’ve eaten real Montreal Smoked Meat and bagel, you  will understand our reaction to what is called by those names, but isn’t, elsewhere.


[special thanks to Marie-Eve Vallieres of To Europe and Beyond for the photographs and idea for this article]