Wining & Dining with Rory McGrath
Tim Hayward – food writer, Radio 4 regular and owner of Fitzbillies in Cambridge - meets Rory McGrath for coffee and cake in a different café and cake shop, The Locker
At 7.30 pm on New Year’s Day, Cambridge was a ghost town. The street lighting seemed a dingier-than-usual shade of orange, roads were traffic-free, streets were deserted, shops closed, cafés with upturned chairs on the tables all sent out an unfestive ‘not welcome here’ message.
My wife and I were wandering desultorily around town looking for that elusive pub-that-was-open-and-serving. Gloom and silence. (Cue tumbleweed rolling through foreground of shot.)
But, wait, there on the corner of Trumpington and Pembroke Streets there was a blaze of light: the Cambridge institution that is Fitzbillies cafe and cake shop seemed to be alive and kicking. No, it was shut. But there behind the counter, hands white with flour and icing sugar, knitted brow aglow with the sweat of unseasonal toil, was none other than T Hayward Esq, the man behind the Fitzbillies success story and clearly a true captain of his empire, working at the helm when all others were at home watching Doctor Who. It was an impressive sight and worthy of an Edward Hopper painting.
Like most of us who were students here in the mid-Seventies, Fitzbillies (even just the very ‘word’ itself) has a special memory. For me there were two iron-clad reasons for studying in the University Library. One was the sexy, mystery girl who – like me - studied on the eighth floor of the tower, away from the crowds, in near isolation among the mazy stacks of crystallography periodicals. The second reason for being in the UL was the tearoom and its sumptuous chocolate cake which came from Fitzbillies, the café that had taken on near mythical status in 70s’ Cambridge. I didn’t get much studying done in visits there and my relationship with Fitzbillies chocolate cake was a lot more successful and rewarding than the one I had with the mystery girl.
Cafés, coffeeshops and café culture are big in Cambridge and there seems to be a new one springing up every week, so I decided to investigate this phenomenon further and invited Mr Fitzbillies himself, the aforementioned Tim Hayward, to give up a couple of hours of his busy schedule to join me for coffee and cake; not in Fitzbillies, but in the premises of one of his competitors. I chose The Locker at 54 King Street, a fairly new and welcome addition to this historic and quirky thoroughfare.
To describe Tim in as simple terms as possible, you’d have to call him a cafe-owner-food-journalist-writer-gastronome-broadcaster-photographer-businessman-columnist-restaurateur-market-strategist-creative-director-foodie-bon-viveur-innovator-TV-question-setter-chef-bouncer-surfer-father-and-husband.
“I remember the days,” he recalls drily, “when having a hyphenated job description meant you were a failure; nowadays it’s a must have!” And I agree, of course, speaking as a writer-presenter-broadcaster-birder-journalist-country-and-western-legend-poet-navvy-worm-sexer-scarecrow-postman.
In the agreeable calm of the first floor of The Locker, I ask him about the ‘competition’. Does he spend much time cruising the cafés of Cambridge to see what the enemy is up to? “Well I haven’t really got time and to be honest in my line it’s the more the merrier. Cambridge is a long way from saturation point with cafés and if one opened next door to me it probably wouldn’t make a blip on my business.”
You don’t need to be long in Tim’s company to realise that he is deeply learned and informed on any aspect of food and drink and for anyone – not just a foodie and drinkie like me - his conversation is fascinating; regular listeners to Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet will attest to this.
But for me today is about coffee. Coffee has evolved since my childhood when there were but two types: black or white. This meant instant coffee, of course. We had heard of something called ‘fresh coffee’, but apparently those who knew said it tasted unnatural and coffee-like and was favoured by French people who let’s face it would drink anything.
I like my coffees (invariably cappuccino-extra-shot) hot and strong and often struggle to get a cup outside my house that isn’t lukewarm and can be drunk in one gulp. Tim is quick to counter my whinge. “The only time I ever send a coffee back is when it’s too hot!”
He explains with some erudition that there is an optimum temperature for coffee and it’s to do with chemistry; the behaviour of the fats and proteins in milk changes with heat and affects the way the coffee is processed by the taste-buds. He also informs me that my favourite brand of coffee (Illy – if you must know) will change over the course of a year as the blend of beans changes with the seasons and availability of each variety.
I know my readers will feel let down if I don’t ask Tim the main differences between the major coffee bean species. His knowledge is again humbling. Arabica is the champ, apparently, and most of the coffee we drink will be a mixture of Arabica blends. Next in the league is Robusta, giving a more bitter taste than Arabica, this is the mainstay of instant coffee brands. (This was a surprise to me; they actually use coffee beans in instant coffee!?)
Tim is laidback about the ‘opposition’ in Cambridge and seems well at ease in The Locker. With a great selection of cakes and sandwiches and excellent (but to some people’s taste lukewarm) coffee, The Locker has been in King Street since August 2017 and is deserving of its success. Whatever the temperature of the coffee, it is served in cups, mugs and beakers all made by the ‘father’ of the establishment, John Hodges; this personal touch adds a touch of homely warmth to the place.
The café at street level is lively, loud and busy, while the first floor, where we are, is relaxed and quiet and apart from the rowdy, guffawing, raucous one that Tim and I are at, each table is occupied by an earnest young person hunched intently over a laptop. This is another modern shift in café culture.The days are gone of rowdy people sitting around ranting on about art, politics and, probably, sex. Coffee shops today are studious solitary places.
Does Tim mind? Does he resent someone using his shop basically as an office or library and sitting there for hours only having bought one coffee? He is predictably sanguine on this matter. “This is Cambridge. It’s a university town. People go on about the laptop generation, but 15 years ago it was exactly the same only people sat for hours reading books!”Fair point. Tim is proud of the fact that he or Fitzbillies has been mentioned many times in the acknowledgments of various eminent doctorial theses.
Compared to The Locker, Fitzbillies is prehistoric, its first iteration being in the 1920s. The Hayward incarnation was born when the attention of his hard-working wife, Alison, was one day grabbed by a tweet from Stephen Fry who was weeping and teeth-gnashing about the imminent closure of Fitzbillies in Cambridge. Here was an opportunity, Alison thought, and one taken swiftly and admirably by her and Tim.
Tim and I meet at the end of January, a time which is comparatively abstinent for me, so eschew the delightful cakes and pastries on offer. What isn’t available in The Locker is a Chelsea bun. I call this confection a “C-word bun” – for football reasons.
The Fitzbillies C-word bun is another mini-legend of modern Cambridge. I have had many in my day but recently have avoided consuming all my monthly calorie allowance in four mouthfuls – as wonderful as they are. How hands-on is Tim with these sticky beasts? “I quality control the Chelsea buns on a daily basis,” he says proudly, of what must surely be one of the most enviable jobs in Cambridge.
Adam and Julia of The Locker look after us a treat and I would not hesitate to send people there. Tim leaves to rejoin his busy, multitasking life and I nostalgically cycle to the University Library to check out the present-day tearooms. No, not a patch on the 1970s version. While there, I pop up to the eighth floor to have a look among the crystallography periodicals, just in case the mystery girl is still there. And, hey, guess what. . .