Let's Eat

'We want New York bagels, not beigels!' - Why the London bread didn't hit the spot

Victoria Prever takes on the incendiary 'bagel / beigel' debate


Photographer and co-founder of It’s Bagels Dan Martensen admits to being obsessed with bagels. During the pandemic the 42-year-old New Yorker — now living in north-west London — joined not one but two (sizeable) WhatsApp groups in his postcode, dedicated to finding or baking decent bagels. Various groups had sprung up after lockdown of people looking for their favourite foods. “I guess my neighbourhood had a lot of bagel lovers.”

He initially tried  to source them. “People took up hobbies during lockdown. Mine were cycling and trying to find a decent New York-style bagel. I’d ride around London looking for them — I even made a Google map of where I’d tried. It became an obsession."

Martensen says that although there are expats making New York-style bagels, none had achieved the real deal. “It’s a soul food for New Yorkers. The bagels here were good and tasty but they weren’t what I’d grown up with.”

He’d experimented at home but couldn’t achieve bagel nirvana. Then one of his cycling buddies — Chris Ammermann, co-owner of London’s Caravan restaurants — introduced him to Jack Ponting, Caravan’s head baker. “Jack had been trying to perfect his bagels for a couple of years. I tasted them but they weren’t quite right either.”

Between November 2021 and April 2022, Martensen’s bagel-eating expertise and Ponting’s professional skills helped the pair produce their perfect bake. “Jack is a phenomenal baker. I knew what they should taste like, and he knew how to get us there.”

The goal was a crisp crust and pillowy-soft but chewy crumb and between them they got there. Putting them up for sale to his neighbourhood groups they were delighted to sell more than 200 in a weekend. “There was clearly a market!”

Francesca Goldhill founder of Hertfordshire-based bagels + schmear, was also looking to recreate her favourite New York snack.  The 26-year-old former JFS student and international business graduate had spent a year working in the Big Apple pre-pandemic.

Back home, she missed her morning bagel and coffee. “I had a craving for them during lockdown. I felt like I’d tried every single bagel in London, but nothing hit the spot,” she laughs. “And there was nowhere to buy the wide selection of schmears [flavoured cream cheese] you get there.”

“I had a lightbulb moment and decided to make my own. It became my lockdown project” says the self-taught baker, who skilled up via YouTube, Google and trial and error.

While working days on her job as a digital marketeer and living at home with her mother in Bushey, she dedicated herself to nightly baking sessions, aiming to perfect the quintessential bagel.

“It took six months until I was happy — I’d be baking in the middle of the night.” By April last year, the recipe had been perfected and her bagel batches were a sell-out. She handed in her notice,  intending to grow the business slowly, but when an opportunity arose for a small shop and bakery at Battler’s Green Farm in Radlett, she didn’t think twice.

Her sister, Olivia Goldhill,  an accountant, agreed to become her business partner, handling the finances (part-time) while Goldhill managed the creative and marketing side.

In January this year, bagels + schmear opened — another huge learning curve.

“I bought professional ovens, which are very different to the domestic oven I’d been using at my mum’s. When I baked my first batch of bagels in them at the oven manufacturer’s test kitchen in October, they were a flat disaster. Even they were worried for me! I knew I just had to keep practising and I’d get there.”

She successfully reworked her method, then put her DIY skills to the test knocking up special boards on which to flip the bagels over mid-bake. “You can buy them from the US, but they are so expensive, I decided to make my own.” The long boards are lined with a strip of hessian-like material and soaked pre-bake, so they give off steam and assist bakers with getting both sides of the bagel crisp and chestnut-coloured.

Ponting uses similar boards for the It’s Bagels range, which are first boiled in a lye solution which, he says, is key to the crisp crust. Golding adds barley and malt extract to her boiling water. “It adds some sweetness but not as much as a Montreal bagel, which is boiled in a honey solution,” she says.

Before boiling, both bakers leave their dough to prove overnight, to develop flavour. At bagels +schmear, Goldhill has employed  Tanya, a Ukrainian refugee who had also not baked professionally before coming here with her two children. She has learned on the job, and is now expertly rolling and shaping perfect ropes of dough and neatly shaping them.

So just what is the difference between the UK’s beigels and New York’s finest?

Martensen believes a key difference is that the bagel is a more savoury bread to the sweeter beigel. “You don’t find the onion or garlic toppings here.”  On their menu are plain, garlic, onion, sesame, poppy seed, and ‘everything’.

The ‘everything’ topping is a deliciously toasty, salty combination of all the rest — sesame, poppy, dried garlic, dried onion and salt. Schmears include plain, scallion (spring onion), jalapeño, dill, horseradish, vegetable and sun-dried tomato. Bagels and pots of schmear are currently available in certain north-west London postcodes for delivery or collection. If you fancy a filled version they are available instore at Caravan’s Brewbar (their Islington bakery and coffee shop) where the menu offers a range with a Caravan fusion twist such as the Sesame Wasabi Dill — a sesame bagel stuffed with wasabi and dill cream cheese topped with pickled ginger.

At bagels + schmear, five basic bagel flavours are on offer — sesame, poppy, plain, sea salt and ‘everything’, with cinnamon raisin bagels on weekends.

Goldhill’s range of standard schmears combine full-fat cream cheese (made specially for her at a local dairy) which she then combines with flavourings like spring onion, smoked salmon, olive oil and rosemary and roasted garlic, and jalapeño, as well as sweet slants like blueberry. “I introduce a limited edition every two weeks — we did strawberries and cream for Wimbledon and I’m planning seasonal varieties like an apple and honey one for Rosh Hashanah.”

Whether beigel purists will take New York’s bagels into their hearts remains to be seen, but they are worth seeking out — there’s always room for another roll with a hole.

bagelsandschmear   /   itsbagels

RECIPE: Francesca Goldhill's Bagel Chips

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