Beigel Bake Bliss
Salt beef, smoked salmon, apple slices and a home away from home: welcome to the East End!
A beautiful spring morning on Brick Lane, in East London. The sky an astonishing blue, unmarked by the white contrails of airplanes; even in this ultra-urban setting, you can hear birdsong. Thanks to COVID-19, many of the shop are shuttered, but not Beigel Bake, which has been serving the community here since 1974. Only three people are allowed in the shop at a time now, thanks to social distancing; we all behave ourselves as we wait for our breakfasts. When it’s my turn, Fiona — one of the stalwart women who work behind the counter here, and keep this place running day and night — fills the giant steel teapot from a hissing tap of boiling water. She swirls the bags to let them steep and despite the tough times, gives me a big smile, for we are old friends. I’ve lived nearby for 25 years, and have come here nearly daily, if only for a cup of tea and a chat.
My son Theo practically grew up here — I can measure his years in his height to the counter. Now he towers over it, and me, peering over cheesecakes and onion platzels alike. I’ve shared his progress with my friends here, stopping on my way to drop him off at nursery, all those years ago; telling Rachel when he started school, Linda when he passed his exams, Ann about his university applications. I’ve been known to mention girls (“He’s very handsome!” Fiona says, and what can I do but agree?). We like to joke that’s he’s so big and strong thanks not to my cooking but rather, to Beigel Bake – his treats of choice a beigel with smoked salmon and butter (no cream cheese for him), a cup of soup, an apple slice — and of course a salt beef beigel, filled to bursting with juicy meat. Hold the mustard, hold the pickle (Theo and I must agree to differ on this point). Fiona, and pretty much all of the staff at Beigel Bake, know what he likes. If anyone thinks that the London’s real East End is vanishing, they only have to stop in here to be reassured.
Perhaps you’re curious why it’s beigel — say “BYE-gel” not “bagel” — at least if you live in the United States. Gil Marks, author of The World of Jewish Cooking, has ventured that the word may have its origins in the German bougal, ring; or beigen, a Yiddish word for bend. “Bagel” is widely though to be an Americanisation. We know what we say here in Brick Lane.
Beigel Bake really is a pillar of this community: everyone comes here. It is open 24 hours a day, its bright sign lit at dawn or midnight, serving anyone who’s got 90p for a cup of tea, and sometimes even those who don’t. As owner Nathan Cohen says, the place is like family. His late father Asher started the business — when I once asked if he always knew he’d go into the family trade, he smiles, and said he had a go at heading off in a different direction, but the beigels were always in the background. “It was my safety net,” he says, and funnily enough, that’s how I feel about the place too. “We knew him before he was born!” Fiona says, and embraces him. You won’t find this kind of exchange in Subway.
Beigel Bake’s ovens crank out 7,000 beigels a day, more or less; customers can see right back into the kitchens where they’re made. “We’re a completely transparent business,” Nathan says, proudly. You can watch as the neat rounds of dough are boiled -- that’s what gives a beigel its distinctive, chewy texture — before being set on wooden trays to be baked. If you don’t feel like a beigel there’s challah, pumpernickel and plain old white bread too, not to mention a fine selection of sweets which includes an addictive jam doughnut. The place isn’t kosher, but you won’t find ham on sale, or shellfish, omissions that link Beigel Bake back to the traditions of the Jewish East End.
I love this place, plain and simple. I have no doubt it will survive, but these are strange times. I’m glad to be able to shout out to a business that’s always felt to me like a home from home, even if it’s just yards from my own front door.