Krakow: home of the bagel

Invented 400 years ago in Poland, the bagel is making a comeback in its home town.

John Beauchamp reports from Krakow

When I think of Kraków’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, immediately thoughts of schmolzy Klezmer bands eating gefilte fisch come to mind. Don’t ask me why: it’s probably just another hacked stereotype. But there is something that Cracovian Jewish ancestry has left the world. It made me realise what kind of a town I live in. It has made me a better man. All of this, thanks to the bagel. This humble piece of dough with a hole in it (not to be confused with a doughnut), was first recorded in the Kraków annals around 400 years ago, and has now made a comeback in its original place of origin.

Bagelmama, a bagel shop located in the heart of Kazimierz, one of Kraków’s oldest and most venerated districts, is now reliving history by introducing the bagel back onto Polish streets.

Nava De Kime, an American who has lived in Poland for 6 years and who is the owner of the bagel store, tells more:

The actual origin, the exact origin of the bagel I’m not sure anyone knows, Poland, and more specifically Kraków is most likely, the place where it came from, the first mention of this piece of bread with a hole in it, this mysterious bread is in 1610, I believe, and the Kraków register, the Kraków archive, pregnant women , for, you can use your imagination, why pregnant women were receiving this bread, upon giving bearth, and I think it was a Jewih tradition, it might have been for luck, so this product could be 400-years old. So it was probably born in Kraków, but what that bagel looked like, I would love to know, but I don’t.

The bagel, a popular snack whether bought in New York’s Lower East Side or in the City of London, still holds its characteristic shape. The name is thought to come from the German word, beugal, meaning stirrup, which may account for the legend of the bagel’s production as far back as 1683 by Jewish bakers in Vienna, when Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland at the time, defended the Viennese with his cavalry against the marauding Ottomans.

Another kind of bagel in Kraków is the omnipresent obwarzanka. It is a larger form of bagel that also comes with different seasonings, being either poppy, sesame, or with salt. Residents call these bagels also: perhaps the four-hundred-year-old bagel was similar to the ones still being sold on the city’s Market Square, and not the ones popularised in western culture? Just a bit of speculation there…

Kazimerz is a labirynth of bars and restaurants, and finding Bagelmama’s is no easy task. The street where it is located has more than its fair share of history too. A surpising coincidence links the present bagel shop with one that was on the very same street more than a hundred years ago:

There was mention of this bakery called Mister Bagel [Pan Bajgiel] at the end of this road, and I found this out three years after I started here, and for me, this is a very obscure street, even though it’s kind of in the heart of Kazimerz, people have a hard time finding this, when I found out there was a bakery, a hunderd years ago called Mister Bagel, well, I was shocked because I had no idea.

Kazimierz holds a very specific climate, and Bagelmama has been in Kraków for the past six years. The shop is by the Tempel synagogue, off Miodowa street, which runs through practically the entirity of the neighbourhood. What brought bagels back to Kraków though? Nava told me more:

Six years ago, six-and-a-half years ago, when I started to renovate this place where I am now, I knew instinctively that this neighbourhood would live through a renaissance, of not only Jewish life, but generally of a renaissance of life in general, because for me it’s the only neighbourhood feel in Kraków. You have the centre, and then you have Kazimierz, and it’s a natural neighbourhood which I find in Kraków, there’s a lack of neighbourhoods, so I knew that it would be a very thriving place. I had to wait six years for it to start to happen, and I did pick the location next to the synagogue, because I can only say that my intuition was that I love this street, I love how small it is, I love the obscurity of it in a way, and I love being next to the synagogue, it’s just a great feeling.

Having gone over the bagel’s history at length, I realised that it would be far more suiting to eat one rather than talk about them infinitely. So, what kind of bagel can you get in Bagelmama?

You can get seven flavours of bagel here, anywhere from integrated wholewheat bagels to the classic onion bagel, garlic, sesame, poppy, cinnamon, raisin, plain, and we have about 25 different types of sandwich. It’s a real bagel shop, ‘a la Manhattan’.

I asked if bagelmania had started to happen across Kraków, and who comes to the shop for some bagel action:

It depends on the season, but let’s say 65-35, 65% foreigners, and that doesn’t only mean tourists, that means foreigners who live in Kraków, could be students, could be working here, 35% Polish people, we also do Tex-Mex food here, which is a kind of strange fusion, some would say eclectic, but it works, and the reason why I added a few assortments of Tex-Mex is that Polish people like to have a hot meal, and I didn’t want to alienate the indigenous population by not offering something hot, and I really like Mexican food, I’ve travelled around Mexico extensively, and I like burritos, so I taught myslef how to make burritos, and we make our own tortillas, so we do that as well, and so we do invite a spectrum of people from the whole planet; Chinese people come, Japanese, Poles, Americans, every European, really it’s a universal and international place.

The bagel has finally made a comeback in Kraków, and is on offer in all various different forms. Mine’s an onion bagel with cream cheese with chopped olives and ham. Or maybe some smoked salmon on wholewheat? Whichever bagel combination you choose to have, you know you’re having it in a place where 400 years ago you probably would’t have been able to get a garlic bagel with humus and extra tomato to go. But hey, you prefer gefilte fisch?

Bagelmama is at number 2 Podbrzezie Street in Kazimierz, by the Tempel synagogue. If you find it, you will be rewarded. Guaranteed.