Mr Sammy's beigel shop in Brick Lane
The man in the blue v-neck sweater is Sammy Minzly, known affectionately in the neighbourhood as Mr Sammy. He is the presiding spirit of the most famous beigel bakery in the land, situated (as if you needed to be told) at the top of Brick Lane. Any visitor to London only has to ask a cab driver to take them to “the beigel shop” and they will find themselves delivered here to 159 Brick Lane, where the bakery is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – and everyone is welcome.
If you go out for a big night and only have a few coins left, what can you do? If you go out on a hot date and get dumped in the rain, what can you do? If all your shoes have got holes and your feet are soaking, what can you do? If you are hung over in the morning and you have not even been to bed yet, what can you do? The answer to all these questions is the same. You know you can go to Mr Sammy’s shop and get a beigel for 20p and guarantee that you will feel better at once.
This establishment is a place of unceasing drama where, at any time of the day and night, there is a constant stream of all kinds of people lining up to create an egalitarian mix that I shall probably not come across anywhere else this side of the pearly gates. Here in Brick Lane they are lining up for beigels to satisfy their appetite and restore their spirits. Stepping in from the cold into the warm vaporous atmosphere, you find yourself one among the expectant congregation shuffling forward towards the counter where two large-hearted ladies are distributing consolation in the form of beigels with different fillings. The question now is, of which denomination are you? Salt beef? Smoked salmon and cream cheese? Egg? Or maybe you are of a puritanical disposition and like your beigel plain?
As you advance along the snaking line, you come round to view the spectacle of the open kitchen where the bakers are at work and the salty bittersweet fragrance of dough fills your lungs. I interrupted Mr Sammy here, just as he had finished shelling a hundred eggs, and we stood among the impressive steel machines for mixing up the dough to have a quick chat as the other bakers continued their work. While we were talking he began cutting beigel-sized pieces off a vast pile of dough. There is an inescapable sense of imperative here because as soon as one batch of beigels go on sale in the shop, another is going into the oven, and so it goes on for eternity. Mr Sammy makes sure there are always enough fresh beigels and no-one is ever disappointed.
A dignified unassuming man with the eyes of a poet, Mr Sammy has been working here since 1976 and is one of the three joint proprietors of the shop with the two Cohen brothers, who took over from the Liebermans fifty-five years ago. All three are bakers and it is their conscientious approach and years of experience that account for the quality of the beigels here, that are unsurpassed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Mr Sammy is usually around in the shop, though technically he only works two all-night shifts, Wednesday and Saturday.
“We use the old system, boiling the beigels, before we bake them” explains Mr Sammy pointing to a vat of cloudy hot water. It is this slower process that creates the distinctive chewiness though few bakers do it anymore because they want to create their beigels fast. Mr Sammy uses a recipe that his forefathers brought from Poland, but it is not simply a case of following the recipe, “it is how you work the recipe and how you treat the dough” qualifies Mr Sammy, revealing his professional baker’s sensibility.
When I ask him how he finds the work, he halts and casts his eyes proudly around the crowds in the shop waiting for beigels, “It’s like a club for me, I see all kinds of nationalities here. It’s the hot spot!” he declares. Then, as an example, he tells me how the Japanese love his smoked salmon and cream cheese beigels, and he follows this with the disclosure that the beigel shop is also a celebrity haunt – running his mind through the long roll call of glitterati that have eaten his beigels, he chooses Henry Winkler, the Fonz, as his personal favourite.
A hundred years ago, this was the Jewish neighbourhood and now the beigel shop is the only vestige of that entire world. But every beigel baked here today by Mr Sammy serves as a living reminder of the journey that so many thousands took from Poland (and all of Eastern Europe) to Brick Lane, and from here over successive generations out into the wider world.