While Montreal is the birthplace of Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, the city’s proud Jewish heritage extends well beyond the written word. Despite its relatively small size compared to other cultures and traditions in the city, the Jewish influence is longstanding and widespread. Generations grew up around bustling Boulevard Saint-Laurent (aka ‘The Main’) in the Plateau neighbourhood before extending out across the city, and traditional Jewish cuisine has become part of daily life, even for the gentile. From side-street bakeries to busy delis and high-end steakhouses, from tender smoked meat on freshly-baked sourdough to oven-warm bagels and locally made pickles that can be found in every fridge in town, Jewish food is sewn into the fabric of the city.
Stroll through the charming boulevards of the Plateau, up the narrow, tree-canopied streets of Mile End and then through the lively Hasidic neighbourhood of Outremont. On your way, stop for brunch at one of several famous Jewish diners; sign up for an organised tour devoted to Jewish food, pick up some of Cheskie’s sweet rugelachs or Schwartz’s brisket, or take home some of Mrs. Whyte’s kosher dills in a jar. As Leonard Cohen once put it, “Hallelujah!”
Sorry, New York, you got nothing on Montreal bagels. What sets the Montreal bagel apart from its crumby American cousin is the trifecta of method, texture and taste. Montreal dough is boiled before it’s baked, and the finished bagels have a crispy exterior wrapped round a soft, chewy moist interior. And it could be argued that it’s the long-standing yet cordial rivalry between two family-owned shops, situated just a block apart, which has led to the Montreal bagel being perfected. Ask any Montrealer, “Fairmount or St-Viateur?”, then grab a seat because the conversation will get passionate.
Both shops are open 24 hours a day and never stop production, whether selling individual bagels to stumbling students needing to soak up a night’s fun, or shipping crates across the country to those hankering from afar. It’s mesmerising to watch the mighty boulders of dough cut into handfuls, roughly kneaded into perfect circles, gently placed on ten-foot spatulas and then baked to perfection in giant wood-burning stoves, as they have been for decades. Only tourists get flavoured bagels like cinnamon and raisin, or garlic and herbs, so stick to the classics like the locals do: sesame or poppy seed. Best devoured direct from the oven, as you walk out the door salivating and jamming your hand into the bag.
The brains behind Wandering Chew are a culinary historian cum food writer and a law student whose grandmother wrote a classic Canadian cookbook of Ashkenazi recipes. Katherine Romanow and Sydney Warshaw founded Wandering Chew intending to preserve and modernise Jewish food by exploring the diversity of Montreal’s Jewish communities. The response to their passion project was overwhelming, and what started as a blog quickly migrated from the digital world into food tours and local feasts. Joining forces with the Museum of Jewish Montreal, Wandering Chew offers a Jewish food walking tour of the Mile End and Plateau neighbourhoods.
Visiting time-honoured institutions such as Beauty's Luncheonette, as well as new businesses like the cutting-edge bakery Hof Kelsten, you’ll be led on a trip through time, back alleys and the diversity of Jewish delicacies that has come to define the city. If the tour is booked, you can always pencil in one of their “immersive food events”, one-off hybrid Hebraic feasts where Jewish food from countries around the world is celebrated (Iraqi-Jewish, Scandinavian-Jewish, Mexican- Jewish) or eccentrically-themed dinners with a Jewish twist, like celebratin g Yiddish poets with a picnic in the park, or one tantalisingly entitled, “Killer Cheese and Girl Power: A Chanukah Party”.
The Wilensky family has been proudly serving little else but fried meat sandwiches and homemade soda pop for over 85 years. Storied and treasured, Wilensky’s Light Lunch may have been immortalised by Mordecai Richler in his 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, but it was a mainstay of the neighbourhood long before that. It’s only open a few hours each day for lunch, but people flock there for the famous Wilensky Special.
The recipe is, quite simply, grilled salami and bologna on a Kaiser roll with mustard and cheese. High-profile chefs have tried to decipher the secret to its success, but as you sip on a cherry cola and dig into a tender, piping-hot, flat-pressed sandwich, you realise only magic and love can possibly explain how ingredients so basic can be transformed into something so special.
Gazing around the tiny shop, you notice the faded sign behind the counter where the house rules are scrawled in marker: “When you are ordering a Special, you should know a thing or two. / They are always served with mustard, they are never cut in two. / Don’t ask us why, just understand that this is nothing new. / This is the way that it’s been done since 1932.” One special please!
To the casual passerby, this bakery’s brightly lit, unadorned aesthetic – glass windows, assembled steel shelves and industrial concrete floors – may seem off-putting, but don’t be fooled: walking into Cheskie’s is like drifting into a sweet-smelling dream from your childhood. The Hasidic bakery run by former New Yorker Cheskie Lebowitz serves a staggering array of colourful cakes and cookies, rum balls and puffed pastries, marble cheesecakes and custard doughnuts and a spectrum of breads, all freshly baked, all kosher, all delicious. They’re lined meticulously beneath glass counters like the world’s most delicious jewellery, and it feels almost criminal to order something and disturb the perfect, vivid still life.
Always alive with neighbourhood children huddling around the soft-serve ice cream machine or dutiful parents eyeing the treats they really want for themselves, Cheskie has created a confectionary perpetual motion machine, a bakery version of Mr. Wonka’s factory. Closed on Saturdays, join the line-up outside Cheskie’s that runs down the street on Friday in the early evening, sun inching towards the horizon and washing the busy corner of Parc and Bernard in a deep orange glow, Jews and gentiles alike anxiously tiptapping their feet in anticipation of their turn to have some of the famous miniature cinnamon rugelach croissants.