Toronto·Suresh Doss

Meet the Niagara 'bagel lady' making fresh, chewy Montreal-style bagels

The Bagel Oven is owned by a husband-wife team who bake Montreal-style bagels at their shop in the Niagara region.

The Bagel Oven is located at 4516 Mountainview Rd. in Beamsville, Ont.

The Bagel Oven is located in Beamsville, Ont. (Suresh Doss)

I am a fan of Niagara wine country; some of my favourite wineries in Canada are located between Beamsville and Niagara-on-the-Lake. And the culinary scene in the region is growing.

I have visited several restaurants in the area through this column, such as: 06 Chengdu Noodles, Maria's Tortas Jalisco and Diner House 29.

The region is also home to one of my favourite Montreal-style bagel spots, The Bagel Oven.

During my first visit at Diner House 29 in St. Catharines, I ordered a popular sandwich on the menu that was made with a bagel. It was soft and fluffy with a slight hint of sweetness – it stood out as a handmade artisanal product. When I asked the chef where he sourced his breads, he responded, "the bagel lady."

Jess Bretzlaff, left, and her husband Steven Bretzlaff, right, are the owners of The Bagel Oven. (Suresh Doss)

It all started in the the kitchen of Congregation B'Nai Israel, a synogogue in St. Catharines, where husband and wife team Steven and Jess Bretzlaff operated a pop-up baking company, The Bagel Oven.

A few times a week they would use the synagogue's commissary kitchen to produce a small menu of bagels.

"We moved to Niagara from Montreal after falling in love with the region. We saw it as a blooming area for food, but noticed that you couldn't get a really good bagel." Jess Bretzlaff explained.

Here's how The Bagel Oven in Beamsville, Ont. makes its freshly-baked bagels. 1:01

She credits the pop-up to a friend who suggested that she approach the congregation and take over their kosher bread program.

"I would bake all the breads they needed in exchange for access to the kitchen." she said.

Jess and Steven started off baking bagels once a week at the synagogue, originally selling to its members and the occasional chef that would come knocking for freshly baked bagels.

The bagels are baked using the 'honey method,' which means a cup of honey is added to a large kettle full of water and brought to a boil before they are baked. (Suresh Doss)

"I think what makes my bagel special is that in my opinion it predates the New York and Montreal bagel. It's very much a Montreal bagel but its based on really old family recipes," Bretzlaff said.

She uses the classic honey method to cook her bagels. A cup of honey is added to a large water-filled kettle and brought to a boil. The bagels are dropped in, boiled for a few minutes to make them chewy.

Afterwards, they are set to cool for a minute before being dressed with a coating of sesame, poppy or mixed seeds. The bagels are then baked to give them crunch and texture.

Bagels dipped in poppy seeds, left, and sesame seeds, right, before they go in the oven to bake. (Suresh Doss)

What I love about their bagels is the lightness, with that slight honey taste that lingers throughout.

At first, The Bagel Oven's menu offered limited flavours, but demand grew and so did their production. They expanded to bagel buns and vegan products using agave. They went from operating one day a week to four days a week.

Freshly baked bagels displayed with jams provided by Provision Food Company. (Suresh Doss)

After five years of baking out of the synagogue, the couple started to look for a larger production facility. With the help of Provision Food Company's Lori McDonald, they transferred to a space in Beamsville.

"We've used Lori's local jams and spreads with our bagels on numerous occasions so this was a natural fit," Jess said.

A loaf of challah baked by The Bagel Oven. (Suresh Doss)

Jess and Steven have not only increased their bagel production with the new kitchen, but they now have a retail space. Customers will call ahead with their order (I suggest you do this if you're craving fresh bagels) and pick up every Friday and Saturday at their Beamsville location.

The also make challah.

"I never knew how to make challah. My customers at the synagogue would request it often, so I took it upon myself to learn how to do it," Jess explained.

Freshley baked sesame-seed bagels on the cooling rack. (Suresh Doss)

The challah loaves from The Bagel Oven have a braided shell with a thin layer of crunchiness that exposes fluffy, buttery sponges of bread,with that signature hint of honey.

"One of the simplest pleasures is tearing off a piece of challah and coating it generously with good butter. Nothing beats that" Jess said.

About the Author

Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He joins CBC Radio's Metro Morning as a weekly food columnist. Currently, Doss is the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.

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