To Sacha Jeffay, Montreal bagels are more than a circular piece of bread with a hole in the middle — they’re a form of connection. A connection she wishes to bring to the U.K.
“I think bagels are so much more in Montreal than just a food, and anyone from there will know they’re part of the whole social fabric of the city,” said Jeffay, 64, who was born in Montreal and has lived in the U.K. since she was 20.
“My mission is really to connect people to food and what food means socially.”
And so in July of 2020, Jeffay opened Montreal Style Bagels, a bakery in Dartington, in the southwest of U.K., near Plymouth.
She wanted to create an immersive experience like in Montreal, where customers can watch bakers roll, boil and cook the bagels. In Montreal, people also come together for bagel brunches, so Jeffay decided to share this experience by hosting her own bagel brunches at the bakery.
Unlike Montreal or New York, Great Britain doesn’t really have a reputation for bagels. Most people in the U.K. associate bagels with the ones available at the supermarket, which Jeffay said are commonly described as dense and dry.
Jacqueline Minton, a Dartington local, agrees.
“I mean, buying it in a store here is completely not worth it,” Minton said. “It’s like buying sawdust, isn’t it?”
Jeffay said many people who come into her bakery tell her that they don’t like bagels. But after she encourages them to try one, they typically enjoy it.
“It’s kind of like a mission to re-educate the U.K. about what a bagel really, really is,” said Jeffay.
Recreating a classic
Jeffay’s journey to recreate the bagel of her youth started four years ago, when she realized she wanted to do something life-affirming.
Seeing as the famous recipe for the bagels made at St-Viateur Bagel, one of Montreal’s longest-running shops, is assumed to be a family secret, Jeffay went off of memory. The recipe required a lot of trial and error.
When she first started selling her bagels, she worked out of a domestic kitchen. Eventually, she was churning 600 to 1,000 bagels a week, a volume that forced her to choose between shutting down and expanding. That’s when she found the space at Dartington Estate to open her shop.
London has its own history of bagel-making, famously sold on Brick Lane. But Jeffay believes she’s the first to bring the taste of Montreal to this part of the U.K.
Bagels were initially brought to North America from Poland by Jewish immigrants. Hyman Seligman reportedly baked them first in Montreal around 1919. A debate still swirls about what constitutes a true Montreal-style bagel.
Unlike the London or New York versions, the Montreal bagel has egg in the dough, which makes it richer but with a light chewiness, Jeffay said.
It’s traditionally boiled in honeyed water in the wood-fired oven to give it its golden brown colour and mild sweetness. But since Jeffay doesn’t have the setup for a wood-fired oven, she boils hers in malt, which still gives her bagels the classic brown hue.
One thing she won’t compromise on is what she says is a Montreal tradition since 1900: “They’ll always be hand-rolled. They’re always handmade.”
Dartington local Clare Horncy recently tried a Montreal-style bagel for the first time.
“I’ve just had what was the lightest, most moist bagel,” said Horncy. “I think whether that’s because it’s a Montreal-style bagel, I don’t know. I’ve not been to Montreal, but it was delightful.”
Jeffay said her customers include Canadian expats who heard about her shop and drove in from out of town.
“When I was working from my cottage [in Totnes], which was very quite remote, you know, not even easy to find, I would get people coming to the door and find people wandering around, getting out of their cars and saying, ‘Where are the bagels?'” said Jeffay. “They found me on Google Maps.”
Jeffay has connected with other bakers through social media who are making Montreal bagels in other parts of the world, going as far as New Zealand.
The bagel connection
Jeffay left Montreal at 20 to study drama therapy in England. That was more than four decades ago, and she said she has never interacted with as many Canadians as she has since opening the bakery.
During COVID-19 restrictions, she connected with a lot of Canadians living in the U.K. through Facebook. Given that many people were isolated, Jeffay wanted to give them a taste to remind them of home.
“I think food and flavours are so evocative for people,” said Jeffay.
She was shipping bagels across the U.K. when she learned people were having bagel brunches over Zoom with family back in Canada.
Jeffay’s bakery continues to facilitate that French-Canadian connection. In fact, she has seen expat Montrealers come in and open FaceTime or WhatsApp to excitedly show their family back in Montreal that they found a little taste of home.
“It just means so much to me to see that logo up there and to have that name,” said Jeffay, referring to her shop sign, “and I think, at this stage in my life, to reconnect with my roots and reconnect with home.”