Food: Here's a magical history tour of baking with Cambridge's Fitzbillies
Fitzbillies, the Cambridge bakery famed for its ‘peerless’ Chelsea buns, is about to celebrate its centenary. Alison Wright and Tim Hayward, who saved it from extinction eight years ago, tell Alice Ryan why the business is not only surviving, but thriving
If Ernest and Arthur Mason, founders of Cambridge bakery Fitzbillies, sauntered into the Trumpington Street shop today, there would be some surprises: the smartphone surfers in the coffee queue, the laptop workers on every other table. Yet the bones of the place - the Art Nouveau frontage, the stack of florentines on the counter - remain reassuringly the same.
The business opened its doors, according to a clipping from newspaper archives, on October 4, 1920 - which means Fitzbillies has just turned 99 and marks its centenary next year. “The number of businesses making it to 100 these days is vanishingly small,” says Tim Hayward, who runs the business with Alison Wright, his partner in both life and work. “So we are proud, yes.”
The couple famously took the helm in 2011, after Stephen Fry tweeted about the bakery’s bankruptcy: ‘No! No! Say it ain’t so - not Fitzbillies? Why I tweeted a picture of one of their peerless Chelsea buns but a sixmonth ago.’
They were hailed ‘saviours of Fitzbillies’ from the off. Tim admits feeling something of a fraud: “We hadn’t saved anything yet.” Eight years on, though, having shored up the Trumpington Street mothership, opened a second branch over on Bridge Street and a full-scale bakery on Clifton Road, Alison says there is finally a sense of achievement: “We feel that we’ve got Fitzbillies into good shape for its next century.”
Alison a marketeer and Tim a food writer - he’s got various volumes to his name, including Food DIY: How To Make Your Own Everything, and is a regular on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet - they were spurred to make a bid for the business chiefly by her fond childhood memories: a Cambridge girl, her 21st birthday cake was a towering Fitzbillies croquembouche.
At the time, he admits freely, Tim thought Alison was “a bit bonkers”, deciding to allow the idea to run its course, inevitably coming to nought. Within a month, though, the couple were meeting the bursar at Pembroke, which owns the Fitzbillies bricks and mortar, armed with a business plan and a freshly baked Bakewell tart. They got the gig.
“The bursar made it very clear to us that Fitzbillies wasn’t ours, we were looking after it; there’s a real sense of custodianship,” says Alison. Loved equally by Town and Gown - tradesmen have a particular soft spot for the sausage rolls, apparently, while it’s a student rite of passage to get sticky with a Chelsea bun - Fitzbillies is part of the Cambridge furniture.
To mark its centenary, Alison and Tim have written a book: part memoir, part history, part recipe book, it’s simply titled Fitzbillies. All the punters’ best-loved bakes are in there, from the palm-sized almond macaroons to the syrupy buns (though that recipe is an at-home adaptation of the still-secret original).
Released in Cambridge this month and nationwide next, it’s a Cambridge Blue-jacketed delight, every page offering up another tasty morsel. Did you know, for example, that the late, great Baroness Trumpington, the former Bletchley Park transcriber who campaigned for Alan Turing’s posthumous pardon, wanted to be titled Lady Fitzbillies, but the name was disallowed?
Using their demob money to fund the venture, Ernest and Arthur opened Fitzbillies on returning from the First World War, likely inspired by their father, known as Ticker because of his abnormally noisy pocket watch, who ran a baking business just up the road.
The origin of the name is the source of debate, explains Alison. Some say it was inspired by a student nickname for The Fitzwilliam Museum, the ‘Fitzbilly gallery’; others say it’s a reference to museum benefactor Viscount Fitzwilliam’s two illegitimate sons, Fitz and Billie.
The baton of ownership passed between three more families before Alison and Tim picked it up. The business flailed more than once in that time, first going into receivership in 1991. But it’s always bounced back.
One of the darkest days in Fitzbillies’ history fell in December 1998, when a thwarted burglar, unable to access the safe, allegedly set fire to a roll of brown paper in frustration - and the resulting blaze left the building gutted and in need of two-year restoration.
One of the secrets to Fitzbillies’ success is, says Tim, its long-serving and supremely skilled staff. Take Gill Abbs, who’s worked for the company for 48 years and baked an estimated 5 million Chelsea buns to date; enough, if placed end to end, calculates Tim, to stretch from here to the International Space Station.
Between the previous owner bowing out and Alison and Tim taking over, Gill was snapped up by a big baking company. As keeper of the secret Chelsea bun recipe, getting her back on board was crucial, adds Tim. Happily she returned to the Fitzbillies fold.
Modernisation has, inevitably, been key to both rebuilding and future-proofing the business, which has evolved from “essentially a Victorian factory in the back room” to two shops and the standalone bakery, formerly Cobs.
Again, Alison and Tim stepped in to prevent the Cobs operation, one of their long-time bread suppliers, ceasing: when its closure was announced, they barely thought twice before buying the bakery, not least to keep their supply of ‘the perfect soft white breakfast baps’ coming. The bakery is now home to their cake as well as bread makers, who produce everything from sell-out sourdough loaves to one-off wedding cakes.
The real skill is, it seems, in knowing what to change and what to leave well alone. Though new recipes are always coming through the kitchen, there’s a core that have remained the same since 1938 - Tim and Alison have an old menu, found down the back of a cupboard during renovations, to prove it. Scones, Chelsea buns, English macaroons, florentines, sausage rolls; all are Fitzbillies fixtures.
An eternal student haunt, Fitzbillies has, it’s fair to hazard, been frequented by more Nobel Prize winners than any other bakery in the world - as Tim and Alison say in the book, people who’ve “conquered Everest, discovered DNA, written brief histories of time. . . the occasional spy, Stephen Fry.”
“The one thing we’d not anticipated, when we first arrived, was how much Fitzbillies means to people; how emotionally attached they are to the place,” says Alison. “When a lady comes in with tears in her eyes, because her husband proposed to her here. . . that’s quite something.”
Fitzbillies: Stories and recipes from a 100-year-old Cambridge bakery by Tim Hayward & Alison Wright, photography by Sam A. Harris, is out this month, published in hardback by Quadrille and priced £20
Want to make Fitzbillies’ signature bakes at home? To celebrate the bakery’s birthday, Alison and Tim are sharing a pair of recipes from their new book
Makes 10 large or 14 small scones
Whenever anyone asks Alison what her favourite cake is, she replies, ‘Well, it’s not really a cake, but scone, jam and cream.’ After the Chelsea
bun, it’s the sweet item we sell most of in the café. Cream tea is surely one of English cookery’s greatest gifts to the world.
460g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
30g baking powder
50g caster sugar
80g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
2 medium eggs
200ml milk, full-fat or semi-skimmed
Preheat the oven to 190°C (170°C fan) and line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and caster sugar in a large bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips.
Lightly beat together the eggs and milk in a separate bowl. Reserve a tablespoon of the milk and egg mix to glaze the top of the scones.
Add the liquid to the dry mix and bring together with your hands. Stir in the sultanas last so that they don’t get broken up.
Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured work surface and give it the very lightest of kneads – just two folds should do – to make sure it comes
Roll out to 3cm thick and cut out to the size you want. We use a 7cm cutter for large scones and a 5cm cutter for smaller scones.
Place the scones spaced well apart on the lined baking sheet and brush with the reserved beaten milk and egg.
Bake the large scones for 15–20 minutes and the smaller scones for
12–15 minutes until they are lightly golden. Serve either warm or cold, with jam and clotted cream, obviously.
Makes 12 large or 24 mini
Florentines have been on the cake list at Fitzbillies from day one. They are one of the cakes that people obsess about and we have customers
who come every Friday for a Florentine as an afternoon treat, so it feels like a disaster if we run out. Florentines, by nature, don’t contain gluten
– just another reason to love them.
55g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
100g caster sugar
55g glacé cherries
240g flaked almonds
55g flaked hazelnuts
150g 54% dark chocolate
Preheat the oven to 185°C (165°C fan). Grease and line a 30cm x 20cm traybake tin.
Heat the honey, butter and water in a pan until the butter has melted. Add the sugar to the pan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat.
Roughly chop the cherries and mix together in a bowl with the flaked almonds and hazelnuts.
Pour the honey, butter and sugar mixture over the nuts and cherries and stir gently so as not to break up the nuts.
Tip the mixture into the tin and press it out flat with the palm of your hand until even and filling the tin.
Bake for 30–35 minutes until golden, then remove from the oven and leave to cool.
Cut the Florentines into a shape of your choice. We use a circle cutter, or cut them into diamonds to save on wastage. You will get around 12 large
Florentines or 24 mini ones.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave (give it 20 seconds on medium and stir, then another 20 seconds until melted), or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Your objective is to keep the temperature at 34°C or below so that the chocolate stays tempered and
you get a nice shiny finish.
Spread the chocolate onto the reverse side of each Florentine using a palette knife and leave to set at room temperature, chocolate side up.
Pictures by Sam A. Harris, courtesy of Quadrille