Leonard Cohen, Montreal, Bagels & Me
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
I was born in Montreal, in the East end. A very French, and new immigrant neighbourhood. There were a lot of Greek and Italian and Eastern Europeans in our neighbourhood. All very working class and humble. My earliest memories were going shopping on the weekends to St Laurent Blvd for all the Eastern European staples with my grandparents, but occasionally my father. The streets were bustling with all the European immigrants going in and out of their shops for their meats, and cheeses, and breads and all kinds of small goods from home. All real, authentic food. My whole childhood, my grandmother rarely bought bread, it was usually made at home. They’d occasionally buy a speciality loaf of something, or I remember a specific Greek bakery that made these great sesame buns. They were always fresh out of the oven. The sites and smells of St Laurent Blvd in those days were magical.
One of my favourite stops with my dad was to buy bagels at St Viateur. I remember going in there
for the first time. I was instantly captivated with the wood burning ovens, and the men rolling bagels in front of you, lining them up on long boards and baking them in the brick oven. It’s an experience like no other. The smell of a wood burning fire, a sweetness in the air, the freshly baked bread smell with roasted sesame seeds, a very sensory environment. The loud banter, and the bustle, not much has changed to this day. But the best bit was walking out with big bags of hot fresh bagels that had just been baked. There is nothing like a hot fresh bagel. NOTHING. There’s so much history to them. The recipe is said to date back to 1880. They’re part of the fabric of the city. There is a soul, and a personality to this humble creation, that screams passion, and history. There’s nothing like it.
Certain people in certain cities like New York will know what we mean by this: When you see a bag of “bagels” in the grocery store with a shelf life of a week, your heart breaks. These aren’t bagels. Do some people think these are bagels? I feel sorry for the people that buy them. I know that sounds horrifically snobby, but I do. Maybe it’s similar to a very finely designed and built car. A craftsman or a team of crafts people have put this beautiful machine together with their passion, and skill, blood sweat and tears, years of refining and tuning, and then saying a Lada is a car just like their’s. It’s not the same. The 2 aren’t remotely the same. I’m hardly a car person, but I hope you get my meaning. Where I come from, if you want a bagel, you go to the bagel shop and you buy it fresh, then and there. That’s a bagel.
St Laurent Blvd, was the life blood of this part of Montreal. The Deli’s, the bakeries, the small
goods shops, and there was a real bohemian side of it as well. This is where Leonard Cohen hung out and lived. And I suppose that’s why I’m really drawn to his music and poetry. There’s a real feeling of Montreal in his music, in his words. Sometimes it’s very tangible, sometimes it’s subtle but you can feel it. It’s like nowhere else in North America.
I left Montreal and Canada, and I started having real homesickness. I missed that essence of Montreal. I missed the uniqueness, that vibe, that feeling. Those smells, those sounds, those flavours. So I decided to build my own tribute to Montreal with my own bagel shop in New Zealand. To me it was much more than a business. It was a real connection to home. It was a connection to my family, and memories, and unique time and place in this world, that has changed a little. But the food, those bagels are still there.
Please check out my recipes for The St Viateur Bagel Recipe. Also Here is my tutorial:
To bring it all together, Leonard Cohen came to the venue I was working at, before I opened my bakery. It was an honour, to have him there and look after him and see him perform. The second time he performed, I’d left the venue, and was running my bagel shop. I was asked to bring him some of my bagels and home made Montreal smoked meat for his dressing room. That was a real honour. A real career highlight that I cherish. It was a real bringing together of my old world and my new life overseas, and it made me even more homesick I’d say. But I stayed for his show and it was captivating, and mesmerizing, a real emotional and spiritual experience. That was his last ever performance before he passed away. So I’m very grateful that I was a part of it in my own way.
So a bagel to me, is much more than a circle of bread. There’s history and meaning and feeling in them. They symbolise a lot of hard work and the struggles of generations of people working hard in a new world to carve out their time on this Earth, to grow and raise their families, and making people happy with the piece of home that they brought with them to share. I think they’re pretty special.