It’s 8.30am and baker David Cowcill of Bakers Local is scooping sticky cups of syrupy malt extract from a plastic tub at Honey-B, the pastry shop and co-baking space just steps away from Barcelona’s Mercat Santa Caterina. A native of New Brunswick Canada, David has spent the last year fully dedicated to wooing Barcelona with his artisan bagels, one chewy bite at a time.
“The malt is one of the most important ingredients in a real bagel,” David explains. “Without the slightly-sweet, toasted, nutty flavour of the malt, you just can’t achieve the true bagel taste.” It turns out that barley malt extract isn’t easy to come by in Spain, so David acquires his from Belgium, a major producer of barley (which is also an essential component of beer, for which Belgium is legendary). Once the dough is formed, it heads into the proofing cabinet, the humidity and warmth enveloping the live sourdough yeast starter during the colder months of the year.
For those unfamiliar with this baked good of Polish origin (and a breakfast staple in Jewish communities around the world), the bagel is a ring-shaped bread with a firm, tangy dough that is shaped, fermented, boiled, sprinkled with toppings while wet, then baked until the outside is shiny and ‘snappy’ and the crumb is chewy and dense. There are myriad nuances that go into mastering this fickle product; hence, the dearth of authentic bagel bakers in Barcelona. The liberties taken with the term ‘bagel’ here would make a Jewish bubbie break down in tears. Calling round bread a bagel is like calling a hot dog a botifarra. Repeat after me: “A roll with a hole is not a bagel”.
That said, edible bagels come in many forms in Barcelona, and David’s are gaining quite a loyal following. They are what he likes to call a “Montreal-style hybrid”. “Authentic Montreal bagels are made from an unsalted dough, which would be far too bland for the local palate,” he tells me as his hands quickly roll and loop bagel after bagel. “And they are dense and pretzel-like, boiled in honey water then baked in wood fire ovens.” In Montreal, the boiled bagels are first baked on wet logs for a few minutes before being flipped onto a hot stone hearth to finish cooking. David salts his dough and executes the traditional Montreal boil. In New York City, the bagel capital of the world, bagels are often allowed to rise overnight (as opposed to Montreal’s half-hour proofing), and many NYC bakers prefer steam chambers to boiling, which results in different textures and a much faster process, well-suited for high-volume production.
There’s a lot of talk about the effects of water character on bagels (the water of New York City is supposedly great for bagels, by the way, due to mineral content and flavour). However, according to David, the lack of bagels in Barcelona has less to do with the baking conditions here and more with the fact that making a real bagel is a labour-intensive process and few people have taken the time to master the skill because there is such little demand for the product. But things are changing and the bagel, especially the bagel sandwich, is starting to gain ground.
David currently sells his fresh bagels each morning at Honey-B (Sant Pere Més Baix 36) and supplies about one dozen restaurants with bagels each week. Pop-up restaurant and pastrami extraordinaires Rooftop Smokehouse recently started using Bakers Local bagels at their Pastrami Bar, the store front of the Paradiso speakeasy cocktail bar in the heart of the Born. Pastrami sandwiches are traditionally served on rye bread, but anyone who has ever tackled one of these towering beasts at NYC institutions such as Carnegie or Katz Deli knows that by the end of the sandwich the bread is long gone, or decimated by the moisture of the meat, mustard, pickles and cheese. A bagel, on the other hand, is hearty and firm enough to last until the last bite. Bakers Local bagels have a base of rye and white flour, which imparts a more complex flavour and offers a sublime vessel for savoury heaps of Rooftop Smokehouse’s pastrami (cured, spiced, smoked, boiled beef brisket).
Bakers Local currently shares the Honey-B co-baking space (founded by Giles Brown of Mosquito, Red Ant and Grasshopper restaurants) with several other local bakery outfits, but David hopes to open his own bakery with a larger scale of production and really bring bagels to the masses. Bakers Local has gained a lot of momentum during their first 12 months of operation, but David isn’t the only bagel game in town.
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Here’s the spread—a rundown of some of the most well-known bagel pushers in Barcelona:
B My Bagel (Planeta 37): A long-time institution in the Plaça del Sol in Gràcia, B My Bagel is a bagel shop and normal bakery. These are large, squat bagels with an ample hole, that have a slightly toasty aroma but not a hint of sourdough. Although not as dense and chewy as I usually like my bagels, they do have a nice variety, from the more classic choices—poppy, multigrain, etc.—to innovative flavours like chocolate, almond and coconut.
The Bagel Hood (Ferlandina 61): Founded in 2016, by an Argentinian self-described “bagel fanatic”, the Bagel Hood has various sandwiches, served on their fresh-daily bagels that possess a nice hint of sweetness in the dough, are relatively small in size and baked to a darker, crispy brown. I must recommend the egg and bacon sandwich. It was delicious.
Barcelona Bagels (Còrsega 398): Also founded in 2016, Barcelona Bagels has a retro branding and a large variety of sweet and savoury bagels, sandwiches and craft beer. Plump and soft, with very strong sourdough aromas and little to no hole, these bagels have a more complex flavour and make for good eating on their own, as well as packed with ingredients.
Boston Bagels (Mandri 3): Boston is my hometown so I was obviously excited to try this one. It turns out that, Monday through Friday, “Boston Bagels” is “Boston Pizza”—bagels only get baked on the weekends. I actually had a nice, though very soft, bagel from Boston Bagels in the form of a sandwich at a Gràcia coffee shop. However, when I went up to Sarrià to try the bagels from the source, they were a bit dry and crusty. I didn’t try these bagels toasted, only fresh, so perhaps some toasting could save them.
Bakers Local (Sant Pere Més Baix 36): As far as I can tell, Bakers Local makes the most “authentic” bagels in Barcelona, but I may be biased because I got to taste these babies fresh out of the oven, and they were heavenly. The flavour is complexly sour, toasty and salty, and the texture is dense and chewy, without the least bit of “bready” or “cakey” crumb that seems to plague the competition. A little bit smaller than the others, the sandwiches made with these bagels are very tasty but less filling than they could be. When frozen and then toasted, the flavour and texture remained true to the fresh version, with the sourdough aroma and flavour more subtle than those of Barcelona Bagels.
Taste of America (Aragó 231): This shop is, for lack of a more accurate description, a shrine to American junk food (because who doesn't miss Twinkies and imitation maple syrup?), and it is on this list mostly for fun. Their bagels are of the frozen, supermarket variety, dubbed “Authentic New York Style Boiled Bagels”. They'll do in a pinch, but don't expect any miracles.