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Bagels – then and now
Like so many old-established and delicious breads the humble bagel (in all its many different spellings) is surrounded by a host of myths and legends. Some books say that the bagel was a stirrup-shaped bread created to commemorate the victory of the Polish king over the Ottoman Turks in 1683, but this version sound very close to the story of Hungarian bakers creating the croissant during a siege by a similar Turkish invader. Well before this time "bajgiels" were a staple of the Polish national diet. And that leads us to the nub of the problem, bagels definitely have a Jewish pedigree, and some authorities attribute this to the manufacturing process. Jewish households were able to make the bagel dough before the Sabbath, leave it to rise during the day itself when no work is permitted and then bake it after the Sabbath was over. This fable seems like a good call as after the preparatory stages and slow fermentation bagels are quick and easy to bake.
The other key feature of the bagel (that's the American spelling, in 19th Century Britain they were spelt beigel) is the leathery, half crunchy crust. The combination of a dense yeast dough inside and the shiny-chewy crust means that bagels keep very well. This texture is a result the steaming. When the dough has proved, the ring shaped bagels are flooded in a deluge of steam; this effectively bakes the outside so that it doesn't expand any further and that makes sure that the inner dough stays dense. The traditional ring shape was developed for the convenience of street sellers who were able to carry a large number of bagels on a pole.
In the Americas there is a fierce rivalry between the "Montreal" style bagel which is made with added malt and sugar but no salt and topped with black poppy seeds or white sesame seeds, and the "New York" bagel (which tends to be unseeded, but does include salt in the recipe). The traditional London beigel has a rather denser crumb and a harder crust.
In Britain bagels are most popular in cities where there has been a vibrant Jewish community – Leeds, London, Manchester and Newcastle. Although the trend towards filled bagels has meant that as well as Jewish favourites like bagel with cream cheese, or cream cheese and smoked salmon; there are some rather un-Jewish variants like bagel with cream cheese and crisp bacon!
"A bag of bagels please!"
Carmelli's Bagel Bakery
126-128 Golders Green Road, NW11 8HB.
020 8445 3063
This brightly lit bakery operates long hours and is at the heart of the social life in Golders Green North London. The bagels range from cream cheese; to smoked salmon and cream cheese; or "baby bagels" topped with chopped herring or egg mayonnaise for buffets. The bagels here are satisfyingly chewy. Jewish specialty breads such as Cholla are also good here.
Britain's First & Best Beigel Shop
(Also known as Aaron’s Beigels)
155 Brick Lane, E1 6SB.
020 7729 0826
There's a serious rivalry between the two Beigel shops on Brick Lane. Their existence testifies to the fact this part of London once had a pre-dominantly Jewish community. Because they stay open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week they have become a magnet for clubbers and night-owls. Aficionados would have it that the sausage rolls (not a very Jewish delicacy) are better here than at number 159.
Brick Lane Beigel Bake
159 Brick Lane, E1 6SB.
020 7729 0616
When it comes to stopping off for a bag of beigels in the small hours the Brick Lane Beigel Bake is my favourite. You may have to queue while your patient cabbie waits a little way up the street, but the beigels here are fresh, a good size, and have a perfect slightly chewy crust. The competition with number 155 has also kept the prices down.
Happening Bagel Bakery
284a Seven Sisters Road, London N4
020 8809 1519
This cavernous bakery in Finsbury Park, North East London bakes an admirable range of bagels and is open late into the night. The bagels here have a very good chewy and crunchy crust – the rye bagel is particularly fine. The filled bagels include Coronation chicken, or salt beef and dill pickle. Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy the cinnamon and raisin bagels. This bakery also make industrial-sized cakes and Jamaica patties!
Bagel of the North
9 93 Grey Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6EG
0191 260 5700
The cupcake side of the business (www.cakesandthecity.co.uk) seems to be stealing the limelight here but there are still decent bagels to takeaway, with elaborate daily specials such as "chicken, avocado, goats' cheese, salsa and pesto" – perhaps a little too complicated? It's hard to beat a simple, freshly-baked, bagel.