Walking into La Boulangerie du Château on an empty stomach is a bold move – or a dumb one. The smell of fresh bread permeates the stone-walled building, all the way up to the wooden rafters. I walk past display cases full of sourdough loaves cut by the kilo and glistening kouign-amann, a kind of caramelized puffball croissant that’s basically equal parts sugar, butter and flour. I’m salivating, but these aren’t the goods I’ve come for. Located in the 1,000-year-old town of Châteaugiron, France, this bakery has hatched something new: the breizhgel, a linguistic and culinary mashup of Breizh (Breton for Brittany) and bagel. And this Montrealer’s here to taste it.
Co-owner Mickaël Durand was inspired by the Eastern European bagels he learned to make at a Jewish summer camp in Ontario. Durand fell in love with the chewiness of the bagels, a texture you’d be hard-pressed to find in French baking. After some experimentation, he landed on a breizhgel dough made of organic white flour, yeast and butter that’s boiled like the Montreal bagels I grew up on, but with maple syrup in the water instead of honey for extra Canadian cred. According to Durand, the main difference between bagels and their breizhgel descendants is butter, the pillar of Breton baked goodies that melts rich flavour into everything it touches.
In 2017, he brought his breizhgel to the reality-TV show La meilleure boulangerie de France, and the pretzel-shaped bready creation took him all the way to the show’s finale. Though he now calls Lindsay, Ontario, home and owns a second bakery in the town, he travels back to Châteaugiron every month to keep his inspiration fresh. And since moving to Canada, he’s become even more enamoured of maple syrup – generous pours of the stuff now sneak their way into his sweets.
I walk up flour-dusted stairs to the viennoiserie-making floor, where a 24-year-old baker in a white apron (another Mickaël, who’s been in the bread biz for eight years) is rolling out thin strips of dough on a stainless-steel counter; he then twists and pinches them into a pretzel shape. At 10:30 a.m., he’s nearing the end of his seven-hour day, and making breizhgels is his last task. He brings a pot of water to a boil before pouring in two 250-millilitre bottles of Ontario maple syrup. Suddenly, the room smells like a sugar shack.
Seeing me eye the deep bowls filled with poppy and sesame seeds, Mickaël invites me to dabble in breizhgel-making. I scoop the puffed-up dough out of the water after 15 seconds, put it straight into the bowl that I shake a few times to cover the pale, sticky surface with poppy seeds, then move it to an oven-ready sheet. I tell myself it might not be too late to start a baking career, though I’d have to dress the part – the cuffs of my black jeans are covered in flour.
Another baker brings in a plate full of warm breizhgels and my stomach grumbles audibly. I go for the poppy, and the first bite has that satisfying, slightly bitter crunch. However, as at home, my allegiance is to the sesame, where sweet roasted seeds bring out the subtle maple flavour boiled into soft, chewy dough. Mickaël puts a few breizhgels in a paper bag for me – now if only I could find the Breton equivalent of cream cheese.