Fitzbillies cake shop opened in Cambridge in 1922 and became a Cambridge institution. Having catered to town and gown for nearly 90 years it was, reportedly, showing signs of wear and tear but its bankruptcy earlier this year came as quite a bombshell. Depending on your particular predilection, chocolate cakes or apple pies drew you to Fitzbillies, but mostly it was the wonderful Chelsea buns - about which more later. Tim Hayward and his wife Al moved quickly when the news broke - along with around 200 other interested parties - and set in motion a life-changing decision. To cut a long story short - and you can read Tim's story, as I did, in the November Observer Food Monthly - they bought the business. It's inspirational stuff, but, as Tim makes clear, such an undertaking is not for the fainthearted.
After much hard work, not a little calling in of favours and some good fortune where staffing is concerned, Fitzbillies re-opened nearly four months ago. The exterior is still recognisably Fitzbillies but inside, the opening up of the shop next door has added a communal table cafe space where you can get a convivial quick coffee and cake. Some sympathetic redesign has gone on, including some walls of beautiful blue tiling on walls which is definitely not old Fitzbillies and makes a successful statement, I think. Beyond the cake shop is the restaurant, with white painted wood panelling and those tiles, defying the chintzy image of Cambridge.
My visit last week coincided with the first real chill of winter - one of those days when you really hope you'll find a good place to eat. Fitzbillies was packed but by taking seats at the long communal table at the back, we got ring-side seats to watch the comings and goings of the kitchen, and a chance to chat with Tim and the brigade as we ate. With little direct recent experience in catering, it can't have been an easy four months for the Haywards. Despite the added pressure of their first opening for dinner that evening, Chef Rosie Sykes (one of their 'good fortunes') was in control of a remarkably calm kitchen and Tim was cheerfully turning his hand to anything that needed doing.
Rosie has an impressive CV having trained with Joyce Molyneux, Alistair Little and Shaun Hill, on to Eyre Brothers and recently working with Margot Henderson at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. So, it was no surprise to learn Fitzbillies makes everything in-house including their own terrines, pates, charcuterie and preserves. At the time of writing they aren't formally open for dinner. The lunch menus offer 'Soups' such as parsnip & apple or swede & bacon; 'Savoury Pastry' which may be egg & bacon pie or sausage roll served with plum ketchup; 'On Toast' Welsh Rarebit, Mushrooms in a cream and sherry sauce or beef with dripping; 'Terrines' of, perhaps, potted Guinea Fowl and cornichons. There are cheese plates, a good range of salads and one or two daily-changing dishes which have been cooked in the cooling bakery oven - how about beef with dumplings or ham, chickpea and pumpkin stew? The lunch menus are still evolving and the planned opening for dinner Thursday-Saturday from 10 December will, no doubt, have an effect on them. Lunch dishes are fairly priced between £5-8, hot lunch dishes around £9.
We ate delicate cheese straws with a glass of decent French red from the small wine list while we waited for our order. Anchovy and beetroot salad with just-from-the-oven soft soda bread followed and chard and Wissington cheese tart (lovely fine pastry) served with a well-dressed juicy radicchio salad. Our restraint meant we were able to justify popping into the cafe later in the day to try out those Chelsea buns I mentioned. My memories of these sticky fruity pastries from previous visits to Fitzbillies are good ones but I usually subscribe to the view that trying to recapture past joys is a bad idea. How wrong can you be. This bun was magnificent. A light, well-cooked dough encasing good quality currants, lots of spicing and a gorgeous slick of sugar syrup. In fact it was better than I remembered. Now, I know they were made by the same baker, Gill Abbs - another of the Hayward's 'good fortunes' - who has been Head Baker at Fitzbillies for 40 years, so how come? Just maybe, it's because Fitzbillies is receiving a lot of much needed TLC.
52 Trumpington Street
Cambridge CB2 1RG