Ask Norman Vosko about growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s, and he will wax on about the little things, like helping his paternal bubbe make gefilte fish from scratch and Sunday family gatherings to watch Ed Sullivan on television while noshing on kosher cold cuts, party sandwiches and bagels.
“All my Jewish memories are about food,” the Mount Laurel, N.J., resident, said when asked to explain what has fueled his decades-long desire to bring Montreal-style bagels, which are smaller, sweeter and denser than their New York brethren, to South Jersey. In December, the 62-year-old realized his dream, opening Mount Royal Bagel Company in Evesham’s Marlton Crossing Shopping Center.
The bagel bakery/café/deli, decorated by Vosko’s wife, Denise, features a fireplace and numerous mementos of his beloved Montreal Canadiens hockey team. But the real attraction is the bagel selection, said Vosko, a onetime rock musician who has spent the last 37 years in the men’s clothing business. “It’s the best bagel you’ll ever eat — I guarantee it.”
Montreal bagels, which originated among Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled in French Canada, are noticeably different from the American version. “But it’s not rocket science — anyone can make a Montreal bagel,” said Vosko.
“My biggest concern was making sure it was an authentic Montreal bagel,” said the father of four and grandfather of two. “The Montreal bagel is a little denser. It’s lower in calories and carbs and it’s boiled in honey water before going into the oven.”
The honey water gives the bagels a more golden color and helps the seeds stick to the outside, Vosko said.
What also makes Montreal bagels unique — apart from the recipe, which contains no salt — is that after boiling, they are baked in a wood-fired oven, as compared to New York-style bagels, which are cooked in a regular oven without planks. Vosko’s oven cost $50,000 and was built brick by brick. Up to four dozen bagels at a time are placed on a plank that goes into the oven. They’re constantly turned by hand to ensure uniform baking at up to 500 degrees for about 15 minutes — in full view of customers.
“It’s a balanced bagel,” Vosko said. “You’ve got to balance the crust, the seeds and the inside.”
Smaller than an American bagel — 100 grams (about 3 ounces) versus 130 (about 4 ounces) — the bagels also have larger holes. The extra weight of the American bagel is “just dough” that Vosko believes makes it more fattening and less tasty.
“They swell, so you are eating air. It’s because of the proofing phase, when the yeast rises. Anything more than eight hours of proofing and the dough is going to get fat,” he said.
The grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, Vosko grew up in an English-speaking area of Saint Laurent, a suburb that was merged into the city by the Parti Quebecois government 12 years ago.
By then, Vosko’s family had already left the province. During the late 1970s, when the French-Canadian separatist movement was at its peak, many Jewish Montrealers were among English-speaking Canadians who moved to Toronto and other communities outside Quebec.
During the 1970s, Vosko played guitar with a band called The Wackers before transitioning to the clothing trade. In 1977, he relocated to Philadelphia, where the company he worked for was opening a store at The Gallery in Center City.
After moving to South Jersey, he started Camillion, a men’s clothing business, with a business partner in 1985. They sold Camillion in 1991 and went to work for Hugo Boss, opening their first store in King of Prussia and eventually owning five Boss stores throughout the Delaware Valley.
About six months ago, they sold the stores back to Hugo Boss. The pair plan to open a denim clothing store called G-Star at the Cherry Hill Mall in March. In the meantime, Vosko began his foray into the bagel business.
In addition to an espresso bar, the Evesham shop offers made-from-scratch Montreal-style peppery egg and tuna salads, spreads such as Nova lox cream cheese, chopped liver, deli party platters and breakfast bagels made with kosher salami. Vosko said he hopes to introduce the region to Montreal-smoked deli meat — a Canadian Jewish delicacy with a taste described as a cross between corned beef and pastrami.
Vosko considers the Evesham store a prototype, but is in no hurry to expand.
“It’s not my bread and butter, so to speak,” he said. “It’s just my dream to have Montreal bagels. We’ll see where it goes.”