Regular readers of this blog will know a few things about me.
1: I travel a lot. 2: I like food. 3. On my travels, I especially like trying out food that is unique, weird, or interesting. 4: I often like to write about the food I try when on the road. And 5: In pursuit of an interesting story, I have been known to occasionally over-indulge in said food.
But nothing is quite as satisfying to me as when all these things come together to create a single, memorable, truly decadent travel-eating experience. Even more so when it has a Jewish angle, happens at 6am in a backstreet of a foreign city, and comes about in a way that I was absolutely not expecting.
Last week I was camped in London for work, something I have done umpteen times before, and normally when in London I choose to stay in the West End. But this time round, on account of most of my scheduled meetings being in the City, I decided to try something different and checked myself into a boutique hotel in Shoreditch, in the heart of London’s East End.
All I can say is that if ever there was going to be a tale of two cities, this was it.
You see, London’s West End – the part of London most well-known to foreign visitors, packed with familiar place names like Piccadilly, Mayfair and Hyde Park – is a relatively posh and fancy part of town. It is an area popular with old-money junior royals and new-money hedge fund types, where people in power-suits do power lunches, and where most of the main tourist sites of the English capital are congregated – Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, etc.
Shoreditch, by contrast, is the complete opposite: once one of London’s grungiest areas, for centuries synonymous with crime, prostitution and poverty. Until, that was, about twenty years ago, when Shoreditch was “rediscovered”, progressively cleaned-up and redeveloped, in the process becoming cool, trendy and oh-so-edgy.
Nowadays Shoreditch is basically a collection of slightly run-down but rapidly gentrifying, graffiti-covered streets, lined end-to-end with shabby-chic restaurants and cutting-edge pop-up boutiques. The whole place is populated by an army of young tech workers and no-money artsy types. By day everyone is perpetually sipping on oat milk lattes while working on Apple laptops in artisanal coffee shops. And by night everyone is perpetually sipping on overpriced craft cocktails at fashionably derelict hole-in-the-wall drinking dens.
Although here’s the interesting thing about Shoreditch: before its modern-day reincarnation as hipster-paradise extraordinaire, back in the day when the neighborhood was a totally unloved part of greater London, the area also just happened to be the epicenter of London’s Jewish community. Estimates are that in 1900 around 200,000 Jews – impoverished refugees who had fled from persecution in Eastern Europe – lived in this corner of the city, attracted to the work opportunities provided in the nearby docks and garment factories. The poor streets of Shoreditch back then resembled a prototypical shtetl: synagogues, Jewish cultural centers, kosher butchers, Yiddish theaters, and so on.
Then, similar to migrant Jewish communities all over the world, the next generations moved up and on, progressing from the menial jobs of their parents into educated professions, and along with greater wealth shifting from older (poorer) neighborhoods into newer (more affluent) ones. Thus, over the course of the next century London’s Jews drifted north, to suburbs like Hampstead and Golders Green. Leaving behind in Shoreditch only scattered remnants of the area’s former Jewish life: a handful of elderly Jews unwilling or unable to move; beautiful old synagogues that are barely used nowadays; and abandoned community institutions.
Now, I already knew a little about Shoreditch’s Jewish past thank to a visit six years ago to the Sandy Row synagogue. And also thanks to my subsequent run in with a jellied eel (read about it here….). But I was nonetheless still a bit taken aback when, at dinner with a couple of friends in an ultra-trendy Shoreditch restaurant, the subject of the area’s Jewish past came up.
“I bet you didn’t know that just around the corner from your hotel are two bagel shops, practically side-by-side, that have been there forever” one of my friends said (between mouthfuls of kale and scorched heirloom tomato salad). “They sell old-school Jewish bagels, the best in London, baked fresh every night so the time to get them is early in the morning. Although which of the two shops makes the best bagels is a subject of considerable debate amongst those in the know: the white one, or the yellow one?”
This, I have to admit, sounded a lot like a challenge.
And this also serves to explain how it came to be that at 6am the very next morning, in the pale pre-dawn light of a new day, before anyone else I know in London was remotely close to being up and about, I found myself standing on an empty sidewalk in Brick Lane, Shoreditch. From where I was staring at the white shopfront façade of “Beigel Bake”, and two doors down from that the yellow shopfront façade of “Beigel Shop”. Trying to decide: “Where do I begin?”
But first, a brief word about bagels. Or beigels.
By definition, a bagel is a ring of yeast dough that is boiled in water before it is baked. So for a bagel to be a bagel, there must be dough, a hole in the middle, and boiling. This last bit, in particular, is what bagels are all about, because it is the boiling that creates the signature crisp crust and chewy interior. With any self-respecting bagel, eating it should give your jaw muscles a mild work out.
There are, however, two main schools of thought when it comes to bagel-ology: the New York one, which produces bagels that are softer, doughier and with a smaller hole, and the Montreal one, where the bagels are denser, have a bigger hole, and are slightly sweeter on account of honey being added to the water in which the bagels are boiled.
Then, apart from these two basic styles, there are literally thousands of possible bagel permutations, depending on the dough (white, wholegrain, rye, etc.), the toppings (salt, sesame, poppy-seeds, “everything” etc.), the additives and flavorings in the baking process (onion, cheese, blueberries, cinnamon, etc.), and the fillings added to the finished product (everything from schmear to chopped liver, and from scrambled tofu to sliced tongue).
However, regardless of the differences, there is one thing that all bagels have in common: they are unquestionably Jew Food. Indeed, I doubt there is any other food on the planet that is as quite as Jewish as the humble bagel.
Most accounts suggest that these round circles of doughy delight were first created by the Jews of Krakow, Poland, in the early 1600s. They were coined “bejgeil” or “beygal” in reference to their shape – the old Germanic word for a ring or bracelet being a “beugel” – and they rapidly became a popular food eaten by Jews right across Eastern Europe.
Then, in the 1800s and early 1900s, when successive waves of Jewish migration brought millions of Russian and Polish Jews to the New World, their favorite bread snack came with them too. Particularly in New York, where thanks to the city’s huge migrant Jewish community bagels fast became a staple of the local culinary scene. Countless bagel bakeries popped up, churning out hundreds of thousands of hot fresh bagels daily. And the classic “bagel brunch” – a bagel topped with a thick spread of cream cheese and a mountain of lox – became a defining statement of New York City cuisine (as later memorialized forever in quintessentially New York TV shows like Seinfeld and Sex and The City).
The rest, as they say, is history, bagel-mania first sweeping outwards across the United States, and then being exported to every corner of the world. Such that today bagels can pretty much be found everywhere, featuring on supermarket shelves and menus from Chile to Japan and all places in between.
London’s bagels, however, are different, with a history all of their own. A history that is unique in the global bagel-o-sphere in that it owes absolutely nothing to the otherwise universal influence of the all-conquering American bagel.
Because at the turn of the last century, a goodly number of Jews made their way from Eastern Europe not to New York but to London instead. They too brought with them their beloved boiled bread snacks. And just like in New York, bagel bakeries multiplied like sesame seeds wherever London’s Jews took root.
But unlike in New York, the fad for lox and cream cheese never really caught on in London, and instead the traditional London bagel was more of a hearty affair, stuffed to bursting with typical Jewish deli meats.
And unlike in New York, where the American tendency to simplify and smooth out the pronunciation of words created the “bagel”, in London things have remained truer to the original Yiddish / German origins. Explaining why in London it has always been, and resolutely remains, a “beigel”. In which the “ei” is not pronounced “ay” as in “day”, but rather “ei” as in “Einstein”.
Got it? Great. Now back to my story.
As you may recall, I was standing on the pavement in Brick Lane, at 6am one recent London morning, trying to decide which of two beigel stores to go into: Beigel Bake (“the white one”), or Beigel Shop (“the yellow one”).
Apparently, Beigel Shop was the original, in business since the 1850s and since 1930 owned and run by the Cohen family. In 1976 two of the Cohen brothers decided to branch out on their own, but evidently their branching out did not go very far, because the brothers started their own beigel store a mere two doors down the road. Imaginatively, they called it Beigel Bake.
Ever since, these two beigel emporiums have gone head-to-head in the quest to produce London’s best beigels, and have become something of an East London institution. Open 24 hours a day, their beigels are boiled and baked fresh daily by two competing teams of bakers, who start work each night at around 1am.
Meaning that come dawn there are always racks of still-warm beigels waiting to be pounced upon by hungry customers. Not to mention hundreds of brown paper bags lined up behind the counter at both stores, filled with freshly packed beigels to be picked up by loyal aficionados – individuals, cafes, restaurants and offices from all across London. The statistics are actually quite staggering: each store produces around 4,000 beigels a day, and churns through about 15,000 brown paper bags a week. By any measure, that is a shitload of beigels. And paper bags.
In any case, after carefully weighing up my options, and after watching a few workers in hard-hats and steel-capped boots trudge into “the white one”, I decided to start there. So I marched inside and joined the queue – eight people were waiting in line ahead of me, and it was only 6.05 am! Eventually, after a few minutes a white-haired old lady in a battered apron asked me what I would like, and I plumped for my New York bagel standard: “an everything bagel please, with salmon, cream cheese, and avocado.”
The old-lady wrinkled up her nose and gave me a look that made it abundantly clear she regarded me as an uncouth blow-in from out of town. “I’m sorry,” she said in a raspy voice, “but we don’t have ‘everything’ bagels – we just have beigels. And we don’t have avocado, either.”
Realizing the error of my ways I quickly changed order, and asked for a regular English beigel instead, with salmon and cream cheese. A minute later the old lady presented me with a filled beigel, wrapped in brown paper, and I in turn handed over the £2.50 she asked for as payment (Seriously? The beigel was basically free – In NYC the same thing would be pushing $10). Then I repaired to the side of the store, taking up position at a raised wooden bar running along the length of the wall, to stand alongside a few other people who were likewise chowing down on their morning beigel fix.
Let me say, it was one damned fine beigel. Everything about it was great – the beigel moist and chewy in just the way I like it, the salmon oily and wonderfully smoked, and the cream cheese smooth and buttery and holding it all together in perfect balance. In seven bites, my beigel was gone.
Whereupon I exited Beigel Bake, walked twenty meters up the road, and marched into Beigel Shop. For a nanosecond I was tempted to order a rainbow-beigel – controversially, Beigel Shop produces new-fangled exotic beigels dyed into rainbow colors, which kids love and Beigel Bake refuses to copy. But thankfully sanity prevailed, and in the spirit of authentic scientific research I decided to order the exact same thing I’d had at Beigel Bake: a plain beigel with salmon and cream cheese.
As it turns out, the Beigel Shop offering was a pretty damned fine beigel too. I mean, if I have to split hairs, I’d say the beigel was perhaps a touch less chewy than the one up the road, compensated for by the fillings being a touch more generous.
So there I was, standing at the back of Beigel Shop quietly eating my second salmon and cream cheese beigel of the morning (it too lasted about seven bites), when a lady alongside to me – I imagine she was in her late fifties – asked where I was from. Introductions were made, we got chatting, and I learned that she was a local – “born and bred in Shoreditch”. She told me she ate a beigel every morning for breakfast, and she assured me that without question Beigel Shop made the best beigels in all of London, if not the world, and certainly far superior to those at Beigel Bake. She seemed quite impressed that I had come “all this way to eat an East End beigel!”
That is, until she got a good look at what I was eating. “So American…” she sighed deeply, pronouncing the word “American” like it was a disease. The lady then proceeded to explain to me that any true East Ender would never order what I’d just had (twice), but would instead always opt for a traditional salt beef beigel: a plain unadorned beigel sliced down the middle, stuffed with freshly chopped salt beef, and garnished with nothing but a pickle and dollop of hot mustard.
Without warning, she suddenly turned to the woman behind the counter and ordered a salt beef beigel for me. And before I could respond, much less object, the third beigel of the morning was being pressed into my hand. Like the first two, it was wrapped in brown paper. Unlike the first two, this one was dripping meat juice down my arm.
Of course, it would have been rude not to eat it. So of course, I ate it (although my rate of consumption was slowing, so I think it took nine bites, maybe even ten, to finish). And of course, it was scrumptious. The beef was melt-in-your mouth tender, succulent, perfectly salted, and complemented in just the right way by the pickle and mustard.
You can see my dilemma, can’t you?
A few minutes later I said farewell to the lady, left Beigel Shop, walked twenty meters back to Beigel Bake, and ordered a salt beef beigel there (research is research). And which, despite being my fourth massively overstuffed beigel of the morning, somehow managed to go down as easily as the first three.
Just as had happened in Beigel Shop, while standing at the bar of Beigel Bake eating my (second) salt beef beigel, I got chatting to a local – this time a tall, thin man with a wispy beard. He too had something to say on the subject of beigels, swearing to me by all things holy that Beigel Bake’s offering was far superior to anything in the known universe. Including in particular the inferior beigels offered up the road at Beigel Shop.
And then he looked at what I was eating. “I see you’re trying the salt beef beigel. They’re good. But if you really want to try the real deal – the stuff that only East End locals know about – ask for the chopped herring beigel. Your life will never be the same again.”
Sadly, however, after four beigels I had reached the end of my personal beigel-eating capacity, and there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to add a chopped herring beigel to my tally, much less two. So I quickly finished the dregs of my Beigel Bake salt beef beigel, and fearful that I may once again fall prey to a local ordering up another beigel on my behalf, I fled as fast as I could.
Suffice it to say, I skipped lunch that day. And also dinner.
So there you have it: a story of how I ate four of the best bagels of my life, in rapid succession, all before 7am one summer morning. In London, England, of all places.
And the winner was?
Well, they were all great – in isolation, any one of those beigels would have knocked almost any other beigel (or bagel) out of the park. But the last one I had – the salt beef beigel at Beigel Bake – wow! It was truly to die for; a beigel that was perfectly crisp and chewy and dense, meat that was fatty and unctuous and tender, the combination of the two creating something utterly delicious, and completely satisfying. The kind of old-style Jewish comfort food that I will forever more now be going out of my way to eat, on every future visit to London.
Who knows – next time I might even get to push down a few chopped herring beigels too….
My first book, MAN MISSION, is now available. Go to www.manmissionthebook.com for details and where to buy.