The bagel been around for centuries and has long been of importance to Polish, Jewish, Israeli, and American communities. The round baked good has gone through an evolution, not only growing in terms of size, but iterations, be it sourdough-based, wood-fired, or the mega-dense yeast-based hunks stacked in plastic (à la supermarket varieties).

Here in Australia, the bagel doesn’t have the same chokehold on the population as it does abroad, but there’s a growing demand for our take on the O-shaped bread — one that is made with biodynamic grains milled by local flour producers, slow fermented, and favours quality over quantity.

Hospitality speaks to Carmen Newton and Jack Muir-Rigby from Masses Bagels and Mike Russell from Baker Bleu about the magic that is the bagel.

Masses’ Carmen Newton and Jack Muir-Rigby have long worked in Melbourne’s hospitality sector at venues including Market Lane Coffee, Embla, Etta, and Hector’s Deli. While the concept is very much local, the idea for what was to become Masses struck in Japan.

“We decided to move to Japan for about seven months because I needed a break,” says Muir- Rigby. “I’d been a chef for the past 12 years and was burnt out. One day we came across a bakery where we lived and they had freshly baked bagels that were incredible — it gave us an idea of something we could work towards that would create better work–life balance for us both.”

Newton and Muir-Rigby moved back to Melbourne and returned to work. Muir-Rigby
was cooking at Etta, but starting a bagel business remained very much front of mind for the chef. The duo booked a lengthy research trip to the US and Canada, but Covid-19 hit and the trip was cancelled.

“It threw a massive spanner in the works and was a curveball for our plan,” says
Muir-Rigby. Discovering the wide world of bagels and working in bakeries overseas was off the cards, but Newton says the obstacle gave the pair the kick they needed. “It pushed us to just start doing it,” she says. “Jack stopped working and had all this free time, so he started posting bagels on Instagram, and we ended up getting so much support. He was baking every day and delivering bagels throughout Melbourne.”

The home-based business progressed to a bricks and mortar location — Etta, to be specific. “They allowed us to cook and sell our bagels there and the head chef at the time Charley Snadden-Wilson was making sandwiches using our bagels, so we got a bit of a following from there,” says Newton.

Hector’s Deli was the next stop for Muir-Rigby, who was keen to learn about the ins and outs of running a business. “Dom [Wilton, founder] was keen to have me on
board and I had agreed to work for him after our US trip,” says the chef. “Timing-wise, it worked out because he gave me a job even though they weren’t open due to lockdown. He gave me the reins when they had their first child, and it was a sink or swim moment. Working there was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done — learning about how a successful small (at the time) business operated — I don’t think we’d be where we are today without that opportunity.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and some bagel pop-ups at Hector’s in between and it was high time to move into utter bagel mode. “The bagels were put on the backburner for about two years while I was at Hector’s and we were both fully employed and quite busy,” says Muir-Rigby.

The pair now balance Masses with their other jobs, dedicating three days a week to bagels which covers production and a stall at the Carlton Farmers Market. It’s the first physical platform for Masses as a standalone brand, with the pair immersing themselves in the community and forming connections with fellow creatives and producers.

“Being able to start at the market has been incredible,” says Muir-Rigby. “It’s made
our job of coming up with menu ideas so much easier because we get to use such good produce from around Victoria.”

But before we skip to the end product, it’s essential to understand what goes into a Masses bagel, which is the result of 200-odd recipes over five years of development. It all starts with the flour, which forms 90 per cent of the dough. Masses sources baker’s flour from Wholegrain Milling and combine it with an Italian doublezero flour which rounds out the other 10 per cent.

“I think it’s given us the best result in terms of texture and flavour,” says Muir-Rigby,
who’s currently working at Wild Life Bakery and churning out 200 loaves of sourdough a day. “It was the only way for me to be able to troubleshoot basically anything that comes up with making bagels. In my head, if I could learn to handle dough every day, we should be fine.”

Having worked in restaurants for many years, the inclusion of wild fermentation in the process was a no-brainer, which basically means the 260 or so bagels Masses produce each week are yeast-free and given the time they need to naturally leaven. Masses’ starter is left in the fridge during off days and is taken out for a feed on Wednesday night and again on Thursday morning. Five hours later, it’s time for the starter’s final meal before it’s added to the dough mix and left to rest overnight.

“On Friday, I divide the dough into five tubs and then we bring each tub out and one person will portion the dough and the other will roll it into balls that are left to come up to temperature and sit for about an hour and a half,” says Muir-Rigby. “Then we poke a hole in them and let them sit again before they’re boiled.”

The bagels are boiled in a vat of water and barley malt, which is what gives the bagels a shiny exterior. The pair tested everything from sugar and honey to rice malt before settling on barley. “We wanted it to be vegan and barley malt is such a healthy product that is really delicious and adds depth of flavour,” says Newton.

The bagels are boiled for about 45 seconds on each side before they’re moved to a high-heat oven — essential for crunch. “We turn them around at the 10-minute mark and then drop the heat — they’re baked for around 15 to 18 minutes. “The bagels have a super open crumb which is something we have been working towards,” adds Muir-Rigby. “You want the texture to be soft and chewy inside but crunchy on the outside,” quips Newton.

Saturday is market day where Masses sells an everything bagel topped with a seed combination with dehydrated crispy shallots and burnt fennel as well as a sea salt bagel. The third option revolves fortnightly and has included a fermented chilli, tomato, and sesame bagel as well as a malt and wattle seed number.

The bagels are available to purchase as is or as open sandwiches, which are piled with ingredients sourced from the markets atop a schmear of Masses’ house cream cheese. “The base of the cream cheese is quark from Schulz Organic Dairy,” says Muir-Rigby. “We couldn’t find a small-batch cream cheese supplier, so we mix the quark with another cream cheese product to stabilise it and then we mix it with whatever is in season. At the moment, we’re doing a smoked trout cream cheese with herbs and pickled tomato salt and chèvre cream cheese with roasted shallot and celeriac jam and Tuscan kale.”

“We only use three elements on a bagel so we’re not overloading it,” says Newton. “You still get the flavour of the bagel which is the star of the show.” Markets will continue to be the platform of choice for Masses, and Newton and Rigby-Muir are looking to expand to other market locations. But the ultimate goal is to open their own store.

“We are going to push for that in the next six to 12 months and save as much as we can,” says Muir-Rigby. “The goal is 100 per cent to open up a store,” adds Newton. “But even with the store, we want to continue to do markets as you reach such a broad audience.”

Baker Bleu is one of the pioneers of slow bagels in the country, with its Melbourne and Sydney stores churning out upwards of 7,000 bagels per week. Bagels have always been one of the keystones of the bakery, which Founder Mike Russell says were largely supermarket fare at the time he launched the first Baker Bleu location in 2016 with his wife Mia.

“In Australia, bagels are mass-produced and are usually baked in an offsite
location — there’s not much retail presence,” he says. “We opened in a Euro-centric part of Melbourne with a larger Jewish community, and I felt a sourdough bagel baked on-site at bakeries was missing, so we decided to go ahead and offer that in a retail environment. Bagels were one of the core items we started with, and have grown into what it is now.”

The bagels at Baker Bleu are also made with flour sourced from Wholegrain Milling and are produced seven days a week in multi-seed, poppy seed, plain, and sesame iterations. The flour in the bakery’s country loaf is also used to make the bagels, which is possible due to the integrity of the grain grown in Australia.

“The protein levels are quite strong so we’re able to produce a bagel out of it with a slightly lower hydration,” says Russell, who also tips the production process as one of the key differences between sourdough bagels and North American bagels. “We mix the dough, shape them, form them, and rest them overnight for 18 hours. All of the sourdough helps break down the gluten structure and makes it more digestible, while also resulting in the same beautiful shiny boiled bagel look you see in North America.”

Speaking of boiled, Baker Bleu’s bagels are not — they’re steamed. It’s a testy subject for many who prescribe to the ‘it’s not a bagel unless it’s boiled’ sentiment. “A lot of people are purists, and I see that as the same as saying a baguette isn’t a baguette unless it’s baked in France,” says Russell. “Some even say if it’s not boiled in New York water with honey, it’s not the same. But we steam our bagels, we don’t boil them. We make hundreds every day and it’s not possible to have a vat of boiling water to pass every bagel through before it goes into the oven. The other core thing with boiling is that it’s part of the leavening process. The method we use creates the same visual likeness and the same result.”

The bagels are automatically loaded into Baker Bleu’s oven to ensure they are not disturbed before they are hit with two to three litres of steam, which is what creates the glossy finish.

“We use a lot of water and drench them in steam, then they’re baked for another 10 minutes at 280 degrees Celsius which gives them a beautiful finish and a tender consistency inside.”

The Melbourne Baker Bleu stores were the first to sell topped bagels, with the product line also available at the Double Bay location in Sydney, which is a joint venture with Neil Perry. “Neil has contributed really creative open-faced bagel offerings and we are all the better for it,” says Russell. “We’ve done whipped ricotta with hot English mustard and cucumbers; pastrami; cherry tomatoes with parsley garnish; and whatever is seasonal. Neil has full creative licence as far as bagels go — the Baker Bleu bagels are the landing pad for all his magic. We take a lot of pride in making sure the bagels are at their best every day. Bagels are growing — it’s a growing thing.”