Where better to pursue the curious history of the bagel than Hackney? Far from its apotheosis in the modern New York Deli, this enigmatic ring bread has been made, revered, and consumed by people of many faiths in many lands from ancient times to the present day. In Hackney we have East End bagel bakeries producing thousands of them every day, alongside equally committed Turkish bakeries with their delectable simit and other braided or plaited breads, all part of the same family.
A bagel has been defined as a doughnut with rigor mortis, or more accurately as the Roll with a Hole, and perhaps too much has been made of the hole, its metaphysical and corporeal potential exploited in jokes and anecdotes.
The distinguishing features of the bagel are its shape: a ring of bread with a hole in the middle, and the cooking technique: a preliminary boil in salted water before baking in a hot oven. A yeasted dough made with white wheat flour is shaped by hand into rings which when they have risen are dunked in a cauldron of boiling water, taken out after 30 to 40 seconds, allowed to dry, then baked. The preliminary boiling gives the bagel its firm chewy texture and dense tough crust. “Munchy firmness” as an enthusiast put it. Cheap mass-produced versions, made with a blast of steam instead of boiling, to save time and effort, have the disappointingly fluffy texture you might expect. Avoid them.
Pretzels are made in a similar way, the intricate knotted strips of dough are first treated with lye (caustic soda) or boiled in water with bicarbonate of soda, then baked. The preliminary treatment gives the surface a sort of glazed effect, a salty sweetness and a crunch, that is irresistible.
But neither of these methods are specifically Jewish, they have been deployed all over Western and Eastern Europe for centuries. Roman soldiers marched on their conquests with buccellatum, rings of twice-cooked bread that were hard and unyielding to eat, but kept well. You could soak them in water and eat with anything, like ship’s biscuits which are also twice cooked. In Puglia in the south of Italy taralli are a much-loved snack surviving from the Middle Ages. They are rings of dough, made in the same way as bagels, but cooked to a hard crispness, and made to last, unlike bagels which are best gobbled up straight out of the oven.
Medieval paintings of the Last Supper show ring-shaped breads on Christian tables. In the 1650s Suor Maria Vittoria della Verde, a nun in an enclosed convent in Perugia, wrote down a recipe for ciambelle affogate, drowned ring breads, in her kitchen notebooks, recognisable as what we call bagels. Bartolomeo Scappi, master cook in the papal kitchens in sixteenth-century Rome, had a recipe for boiled then baked ciambelle.
For centuries the East End of London has been home to waves of immigrants, French Huguenot weavers and Dutch merchants. From the 1880s Hackney has been home to immigrants from Poland and Russia, joined in the 1930s by Jews escaping persecution by fascist regimes. By then the bagel had become an iconic Jewish bread in Warsaw, evolving from a luxury white bread for the privileged to a much-loved cheap snack for the many, and cherished here in London as a memory of home and a tangible token of solidarity and comfort.
The historian Maria Balinska in her book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modern Bread has unearthed the fascinating history of the bagel as iconic Jewish comfort food and its migration to England – and to New York – from Poland in the nineteenth century. The bagel had a big part in the development of trade unions in New York where the battles of Local 338 to secure decent working conditions for bakery workers was a critical phase in labour relations. But by the 1960s the millions of them consumed daily were supplied by massive out of town factories, steam-baked, not dunked in boiling water, like the traditional product, but sliced, frozen and distributed far and wide. This mechanised bagel became emblematic of New York’s vibrant deli culture, and now the ‘bagelisation’ of America has given it a universal identity.
Bakeries like the ones on Brick Lane and the Kingsland Road area are survivors from the time when the population was predominantly Jewish, and are now selling wholesome old-fashioned bagels to an appreciative cross-section of the borough’s multi-racial residents.
Brick Lane has perhaps an over-hyped reputation for food from the Indian subcontinent, but it’s also home to a huge spectrum of food from other faiths and climates. An austere and sophisticated Nordic eatery rubs shoulders with the long-established Beigel Bake at number 159 where visual appeal is nil and warmth and friendliness a huge plus. You wait in a line with passing strangers, beautiful but bewildered Japanese visitors, and determined elderly food historians from Stokey along with eager gastro-tourists and their guide, all rubbing shoulders amicably with tolerant locals, patient to wait their turn for freshly baked bagels filled with lox and cream cheese, or massive portions of salt beef. A similar establishment flourishes amicably two doors down.
It is quite a contrast to another 24 hour bagel bakery on Ridley Road, supplied by Mr Bagels, a hugely successful company that makes industrial bagels for wholesale or retail sales, prepared in frozen or partly cooked form, using mechanical shaping and steam baking methods.
Halfway up Stoke Newington High Street is The Bagel House, with good bagels with a wide range of fillings, and space to enjoy them. Further north is a small, less hyped bakery, with Turkish pastries and breads as well as bagels baked on the premises. It seems to satisfy the wide range of customers at the bottom of Stamford Hill, but its Turkish products are more satisfactory than the rather mild bagels, which are not what our nostalgia calls for.
You really do have to go to Brick Lane to experience the tough love of the real genuine bagel, chewy and resistant to most molars, freshly baked and smelling of yeast and flour, perfumed by the whiffs of gherkin, lox and salt beef, that lurk within. Get there now, stand in line, and bite into a fragrant chunk of East End history.
Gillian Riley is the author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, published by Oxford University Press.