Vermont's bagel bakers answer the roll call
When I was a kid, you had to be Jewish to nosh bagels. Or at least live around lots of Jews. The closer to New York City, the better. In the New Jersey suburbs, where I grew up, my mother would send my father 10 miles to fetch bagels for Sunday brunch. If they were still warm when he returned, toasting them was a crime. We'd spread on cream cheese - Philadelphia brand, plain - and top them with lox. Maybe red onion and tomato, if tomatoes were in season. For funerals, we'd splurge on smoked whitefish, sable and ultra-luxurious sturgeon in addition to the salmon. Spreading bagels with peanut butter was considered a sacrilege. Eating ham, Cabot cheddar and apple on a spinach bagel for lunch? Unheard of.
Bagels have come a long way since then - they're ubiquitous, even in northern Vermont. Prepackaged varieties cozy up to English muffins on supermarket shelves. Coffee houses and lunch places offer bagels as alternative sandwich bread. You can even buy bagels with your glazed chocolate cake Munchkins at Dunkin Donuts.
In the Burlington area, nearly a dozen family-owned businesses are built around freshly baked bagels. The area even launched a bagel franchise chain. Burlington businessman Nord Brue established Bruegger's Bagel Bakery in 1983. Today the company is 250 "quick casual" shops strong, and still growing. Brue sold the business to Sun Capital Partners three years ago, but it's still headquartered here.
How did the area become Bagel Central? Are these bagels any good? Are they all even bagels? And what is a bagel, anyway?
Depending on who you ask, the word comes either from the Yiddish beygel, which means bracelet, or buegel - German for stirrup. The latter theory holds that in 17th-century Vienna, a Jewish baker fashioned the first bagel to thank the king of Poland for protecting his people from the Turks. The roll's stirrup shape honored the ruler's equestrian obsession.
Bagels as we know them today gained popularity in the shtletls of Poland, where street venders hawked them on poles or from flat baskets hung around their necks. Jewish immigrants brought them to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Montréal's first bagel bakery opened in 1919.
New York-style bagel dough traditionally consists of flour, water, cake yeast, salt and malt syrup. But boiling is what makes a bagel more than just a roll with a hole. After the rings have risen, they're briefly immersed in a kettle of briskly boiling water. This step produces their characteristic chewy texture. It also keeps the crust from becoming too crisp when they're subsequently baked at 425 degrees for about half an hour.
Longer kettling yields softer bagels. The water itself can also affect taste. New Yorkers assert that the mineral content of their tap water gives bagels a special taste that makes them impossible to replicate outside the city.
That doesn't bother Montréalers. They have their own brand of bagels, and bagel chauvinism to accompany it. Boiled in water that's been flavored with honey, and baked in a wood-fired oven, Montréal bagels are sweeter than their New York-style cousins and have a slightly smoky taste. They also tend to be smaller and dryer and have much larger holes.
Bagels began going mainstream after the Second World War. As Jews became more integrated into American culture, migrating to the suburbs and beyond, bagels also assimilated. That blending led to dilution - a trend that gave purists pause. In 1977, long before anyone had dreamed of impregnating bagel dough with French toast flavoring or chocolate chips, New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton opined in her book, From My Mother's Kitchen, "More and more, mass-produced bagels are becoming soft, white, fluffy imitations of American rolls."
You hear similar claims around Burlington today, especially from bakers who imply that their bagels are the real thing and certain competitors are merely poseurs. Independent operators who mix their own dough from scratch like to point out that Bruegger's bagels, promoted as "the way bagels are supposed to be made," are actually preformed and frozen in Boston before being shipped to Vermont.
This is true, concedes Scott Hughes, Bruegger's vice president for marketing. He says concern for "quality" drove the change, which happened about a year ago. Hughes explains that by shipping bagels in a frozen state, "We found we were getting a more consistent product." More consistent, that is, than when the pre-boiled rings were sent out refrigerated, as Bruegger's had done in the past.
The bagel behemoth isn't above taking its own shots at other bakers. Touting its traditional ingredients, the Bruegger's website charges, "Some other bagel makers add preservatives or oils to their bagels." Bruegger's also warns that "some" makers steam rather than boil their bagels. The claims may be true of the bagels you buy at the supermarket. Pepperidge Farms and Thomas' add oil to their dough, as does Myers. But none of the area's independent, New York-style bagel bakers go that route. And all the local bagel mavens boil.
Nearly half of the local bagel bakeries can trace their genesis to one man. Ruben Goldberg brought the first bagels to Vermont in the 1940s, when he opened Ruben's Bakery on Riverside Avenue in Burlington. Ruben begat Morris and passed on the family business, and Morris begat Jeff and Ron. "When I was 6 or 7," Ron recalls, "Dad used to take me to the shop to bag rolls and bake bagels."
When Morris died in 1969, Jeff took over the business. Ron, who was studying engineering in Boston, came up on weekends to help out. Three years later, the brothers replaced Ruben's Bakery with Goldberg's, off Pine Street in Burlington's South End. It was Ron who turned the family business into a bagel dynasty. So far, he's opened 18 bagel businesses - many of which are still operating in this area.
He closed Goldberg's in 1982 to open The GT Bagel Factory, across from St. Michael's College in Colchester. The name referred to Goldberg and co-owner George Trono. After Goldberg sold his share, the company moniker still applied. Trono later opened a second GT Bagel in Milton, which is now closed, and The GT Bagel Factory on White Street in South Burlington, which the family continues to operate today.
The second branch of the Goldberg bakery family tree begins with The Bagel in Stowe, which Ron Goldberg opened after he left GT. Ten years ago, he sold it to Tom Ryan. A former high school teacher and Burlington city councilor, Ryan says he owes everything he knows about bagels to Goldberg. "An Irish Catholic had to learn from a Jewish guy," he comments. "Ron is one of the best." Ryan went on to open a second The Bagel on Shelburne Road. Both places still sell bagels, though under new ownership; the Shelburne shop was sold to Bruegger's in June.
Since 2002, Ryan has been at The Bagel Café in Burlington's New North End, where he grew up. There he doesn't just turn out some of the best, and biggest, New York-style bagels in the area. Ryan's café is also a gathering place in a neighborhood that desperately needed one. High school students work the counter and hang out after school. On a recent Sunday afternoon, customers include a group of teenagers, a couple of white-haired women wearing windbreakers and stretch pants, and a nun. "We get all political stripes in here," says Ryan, "and anyone who wants to put up signs can."
Ron Goldberg himself, now 54, is baking bagels at The Bagel Market, on Essex Junction's busy Susie Wilson Road. A glass window behind the counter reveals the handsome, stone-lined oven. A sign on the wall traces the family's bagel pedigree. "We do everything," Goldberg says. "It's all made from scratch. We even cook our own meats."
The business is still a family affair. When Goldberg arrives at work between 4 and 5:30 a.m., his son Kyle, 22, has already been in the kitchen with a second baker for at least an hour. His daughter Sarah, a 21-year-old UVM student, roasts the coffee. His eldest son Tad, who died last year at 27, used to "run the whole show," Goldberg says. "He was phenomenal."
So are the bagels. Plump and smooth, they're hefty but not too huge, with a faint crackle to the crust, an airy, springy texture and a strong note of malt that fills the back of the mouth as you chew. Bryant Gumbel agrees. Back in the early '90s, Goldberg's product was featured on "The Today Show" as one of the best New York-style bagels baked outside the city. Business is brisk. Goldberg bakes between 250 and 265 dozen bagels on weekdays, and up to 800 dozen in the course of a weekend.
Goldberg and Brue may be northern Vermont's bagel kings, but theirs are not the only bagels around. The Burlington Bagel Bakery has been a major player on the scene since 1979, when Roy Feldman and Marty Schwartz opened it across from City Hall Park. After a 1989 kitchen fire, it reopened on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. Tammy and Kyle Fersing have operated it since 2002. The Colchester natives learned the bagel business in Colorado, of all places. The recipe they brought with them adheres to the traditional technique, but yields a product that's softer and milder than the classic New York-style bagel.
Differences between bagels can be subtle, and when you eat them is crucial: They grow more leathery the longer they sit. When it comes to taste, more or less malt or salt can make a world of difference. But those distinctions are obscured when the dough's been fancied up with, say, sun-dried tomato or pumpkin, and flavored cream cheese has been smeared on the top. The bagel's merits matter even less when it's part of a BLT or a ham-salad sandwich.
Two local bakeries are bucking the bagel-as-everything trend. And they're not even trying to make traditional New York-style bagels. Twenty years ago, Sid Berkson introduced Montréal-style bagels to Burlington when he opened Myers Bagels on Main Street. He recruited Lloyd Squires, a bagel-maker at one of Montréal's premier bagel bakeries. Although Berkson closed Myers after just 18 months, Squires bought the business and re-opened at its current location.
You have to navigate a pot-holed dirt drive to reach The Café at Myers, housed in a retrofitted industrial building off Pine Street. The smell of wood smoke hovers outside. The first thing you see stepping inside the broad space is the huge brick oven with its wood fire on one side and bagels baking on long, wooden pallets on the other.
Squires works alone, turning out between 300 and 600 dozen bagels a day. While other local bakers shape their bagels in a forming machine, he makes his the old-fashioned way. "I've hand-rolled 44 million bagels in my life," says Squires, 42. He also follows the traditional Montréal approach of adding honey to his boiling water.
To suit U.S. preferences, however, he kneads his dough without salt. The result is a healthier bagel - just 5 mg of sodium - but it can taste flat when eaten unadorned. Myers bagels are skinnier than the New York-style variety, but "chubbier" than those across the border, he says. So far, Squires has resisted adding flavors to his dough. But he's supplemented the classic choices of plain, poppy, sesame, garlic, onion and salt with two varieties: cinnamon sugar and mouth-searing Montréal steak seasoning.
You can build a meal around a Myers bagel at the café that shares space with the bakery. The bagels are also available frozen at 13 area locations, and fresh at a handful of others. In addition, once a week Squires ships bagels directly to 197 distant homes, from the Florida Keys to Anchorage, Alaska.
For a classic lox-and-bagel brunch, I drive to Susie Wilson Road or North Avenue. And when I eat a Myers bagel with butter, I add salt. But like Squires' far-flung aficionados, I've learned that bagels can make good eating even if they're not pretending to be from New York.
The most recent addition on the local bagel scene falls somewhere between New York and Montréal - in Richmond. Raechel Barone, a 31-year-old former elementary school teacher, and her husband Ben Bush, 34, who used to work in scenic and lighting design, opened On the Rise on Bridge Street two and a half years ago. The bakery sells sweet rolls, scones, muffins, cakes, croissants, cookies and bars, and limited-edition bagels - just six to 10 dozen a day. They're inspired by Absolute Bagels on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Bush lived before moving to Vermont.
On the Rise bagels smell similar to Parker House rolls and taste mildly sweet, with a texture that's more doughy than dense. Hand twisting gives them a distinctive shape. Rather than malt, the dough is sweetened with honey - from Franklin Heyburn's apiary in Waterville, Barone notes. On the Rise isn't big on variety: Plain bagels might be sprinkled with sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds. The bakery also offers multigrain, cinnamon raisin and love-them-or-hate-them sourdough sesame bagels.
At $1 each, On the Rise bagels are pricier than most. And customers who buy a dozen don't get a break. In fact, bulk buys must be ordered before 7 a.m. the previous day. Sounds inconvenient, but the arrangement has its plus side: For customers who plan to freeze their bagels for future use, baker Steve Hoskins will leave them slightly undercooked, so they won't be overdone when they're re-baked.
Fans swear these bagels are the best in Vermont. They're certainly delicious. But it will take some time for the purist in me to accept that they're bagels. When I do, it will take even longer for me to try them with peanut butter.
Making the Bagel Rounds
394 Mountain Road, Stowe
Bagel Café and Deli
1127 North Avenue, Burlington
30 Susie Wilson Road, Essex Junction
93 Church Street, Burlington
2989 Shelburne Road, Shelburne
Open 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. Mon-Fri, 6 a.m. - 5 p.m. weekends.
Single 79 cents; 1/2 doz. $4.29; baker's doz. $6.99.
Undistinguished taste, slightly soft texture. Bagels are shipped
in frozen, then boiled and baked on site throughout the day.
Burlington Bagel Bakery
992 Shelburne Road, South Burlington
Open 6 a.m. - 4 p.m. Mon-Fri, 6:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. Sat, 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. Sun.
Single 82 cents; 1/2 doz. $4.05; doz. $7.50; day-old doz. $1.99.
Burlington Bagel Bakery used to produce some of the best New York-style bagels around. The current recipe is soft and insipid. But customers can't seem to get enough.
The Café at Myers
377 Pine Street, Burlington
Open 4:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.
Single 76 cents; 1/2 doz., $3.60; doz. $7.20
Hand-formed Montréal-style bagels; no salt in the dough; toast with care to avoid burning. Available fresh at City Market, Speeder & Earl's and Viva Espresso in Burlington, Healthy Living in South Burlington and Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier; frozen at 13 locations. Frozen bagels can be dry. They come pre-sliced, and the "halves" are sometimes very uneven.
GT Bagel Factory
35 White Street, S. Burlington
Open 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. Mon-Fri, 6 a.m. - 4 p.m. weekends.
Single 60 cents; 1/2 doz. $3.25; doz. $5.75.
A very soft, bland New York-style bagel. The shop has a stuck-in-time feel: Prices are low, and GT may be the only bagel bakery around that still lists lox-to-go on its menu.
Kartula's Café and Bagel Bakery
32 South Main Street, St. Albans
Open 6 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Mon-Fri, 7 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sat.
Single 75 cents; 1/2 doz. $3; doz. $5.50; day-old 1/2 doz. $1.75
New York-style bagels are formed and frozen at the Bagel Depot in St. Johnsbury and finished on site.
Middlebury Bagel & Delicatessen
11 Washington Street, Middlebury
Open 6 a.m. - 2 p.m. Mon-Sat, 6 a.m. - 1 p.m. Sun.
Single $1; 1/2 doz. $6; doz. $12; day-old 50 cents/bagel.
Baker-owner Jim Rubright says he makes "bagels with a country flair." They have a less "rugged" texture than the standard bagel, and Rubright substitutes sugar for malt.
On the Rise Bakery
Bridge Street, Richmond
Open dawn - 6 p.m. Mon-Fri, dawn - 2 p.m. Sat & Sun.
Single $1; 1/2 doz. $6; doz. $12; day-old 50 cents/bagel.
Hand-formed bagels that are sweeter and smaller than most New York-style; honey is substituted for malt; fresh, yeasty taste.