The judges were swift and severe.
After getting their first look at the bagels lined up in the center of a conference room table in the Press Herald newsroom, they immediately dismissed the anemic ones on the end because they looked as if they hadn’t spent enough time in an oven. Some judges refused to acknowledge that they even were bagels, labeling them “bread with holes.”
They were “just not even worth talking about,” one judge decreed as others nodded in agreement.
If you want to talk gumbo, chat up someone from New Orleans. Barbecue? Chew the fat with a Memphian. We wanted to talk bagels, so we turned to local bakers, New York natives and Jews for their expertise. (While the bread seems as American as pizza these days, it was only a few decades ago that it was an ethnic Jewish bread.)
Southern Maine has more sources for good bagels than ever before. So much so that in October Saveur magazine gave one Maine bagel maker major props, calling the wood-fired sourdough bagel from Forage Market in Lewiston one of the best in the country, “good enough to melt the heart of the most hardened New York bagel snob.”
This explosion of bagel love made us wonder: Which local bakery is producing the best bagel? And what makes a bagel a good bagel, anyway?
To set up our bagel smackdown, we purchased sesame seed bagels from a half-dozen sources in the Greater Portland area (a geographic constraint that ruled out Forage) and invited a panel of experts to taste and judge them. The bagels came from bakeries with good bagel reputations locally, and we chose to buy only sesame to make the playing field even. We purchased the bagels – racking up 45 miles on the odometer – the morning of the tasting to ensure they were fresh.
Our bagels came from Rosemont Market in Portland, 158 Pickett Street Café in South Portland, Maples in Yarmouth, Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland, the Purple House in North Yarmouth, and Union Bagel in Portland.
We numbered the bagels so the judges, a panel of seven (see sidebar, C1), would be tasting blind – no preconceived notions about particular bakeries allowed. My role? Pure reporter. I watched, asked questions and recorded the judges’ detailed, sometimes funny, reactions as they bit into bagel after bagel.
Unlike most breads, bagels are made by boiling, then baking, which gives them their unusual texture. Before digging into the assembled bagels, we asked our panelists what makes a good bagel in the first place. The consensus? It must be crunchy on the outside, and doughy, dense and chewy – but not TOO doughy, dense and chewy – on the inside. It can’t be too large, or it veers into the “bready” category. And it must have some caramelization on the outside that gives it a darker color.
Visually, our bagels ran the gamut from beige to burnt sienna, from perfect fat circles to loopy ropes of dough filled with delightful irregularities. The bagels were quartered so the judges wouldn’t fill up too fast. They took small bites, but went back for more if they had to settle a debate over texture or flavor. Cream cheese was on the table for those who wanted it, but no lox, onion or other toppings. The judges cleansed their palates between bites with bottled water. Sesame seeds flew everywhere (our apologies to the janitor).
The tasting took a little over an hour.
The verdict? The sesame bagels from Scratch Baking came out on top with all but one of our judges – not that its victory will surprise anyone in Greater Portland. Scratch is such a local favorite that at certain times of the year, the bakery has lines stretching out the door and it has had to set limits on how many bagels each customer can buy.
Running a close second was Purple House, a bakery and café with a wood-fired oven recently opened by chef Krista Desjarlais in North Yarmouth, where she also smokes her own fish to go with the bagels.
But our judges – perhaps reflecting the opinionated, outspoken reputation of the former New Yorkers who dominated the panel – subjected even the two winners to some tough critiques. (In short: neither winner was a traditional New York bagel.) This was an exceedingly tough crowd. As Press Herald Executive Editor and Bagel Judge Cliff Schechtman said about the bagels he’s eaten in Maine: As a group, they are “something that’s round with a hole in it. It’s not a bagel.”
But despite their often searing judgments, the most important thing, native New Yorker and Bagel Judge Jay Levine pointed out, is to “know what you like.”
“You don’t need an authority,” he said. “You don’t need people to say ‘This is the best.’ Everybody’s taste is going to be different.”