I was not seeking something as tough, doughy and bloated as a New York bagel, nor was I expecting a lighter ring of dough with the old-world character of a Montréal bagel. If a London bagel meant middling size, sweetness, chewiness and crispness, so be it. But to be truly great a London bagel needed to have something more at its core than a hole. It needed to show a baker’s pride and craft.
I failed to find a great London bagel. I didn’t even manage to track down a great London beigel. But I did locate a superior one at Happening Bagel Bakery in Finsbury Park (284A Seven Sisters Road, N4).
Happening was opened in 1994 by Isaac Cohen, an Israeli who learned the bagel business at various bakeries in north London and through bagel reconnaissance missions in the US. His hand-rolled, boiled-and-baked bagels are plump but not airy, with just enough tug to the chew.
The Happening edge is due to two factors: freshness and two-sided seeding. Rather than bake in large batches overnight, when electricity is cheapest, the Happening crew bakes in small batches during the day. No bagel (other than perhaps those stuffed as sandwiches) sits for long. Instead of saving money by coating only one side of its bagels with sesame seeds or poppy seeds, Happening covers both sides with a thick layer. I need reading glasses to make out the spaces between the seeds.
I like the sesame, poppy and onion bagels, but it’s the caraway seed variety that really gets me excited. I know them as kimmel (Yiddish for caraway) bagels from my days in Montréal and I love how the seeds add a sweet, tangy flavour and a gritty crunch to the bagel shell.
So why isn’t a Happening bagel a great bagel? One big reason is that it’s slightly under-baked, a bit raw in the middle. Isaac agrees. He says his clientele won’t accept harder, darker bagels and so they’re removed from the oven when they’re still pale and before they’re cooked through. They need to be halved and toasted to completion.
I have a glimmer of an idea how to go about baking artisan London bagels in an old-world style and Isaac is willing to give it a try. Because the Finsbury Park faithful seem to be resistant to darker bagels, we may need volunteers for our experiment. If you’re intrigued and might like to participate, be sure to send in a comment.