Fitzbillies | Discernment | Betty Herbert

On Bakery

Last week, I visited Cambridge’s Fitzbillies for dinner. When I lived there, it was a rather sorry little place, but Cambridge is a town that likes to mythologise, and the Fitzbillies Chelsea bun was part of that mythology. Like many myths, it was better left uninterrogated.

Suffice it to say, it’s been transformed. We ate a delicious meal in a buzzing dining room, and marvelled at a space that was utterly unrecognisable from fifteen years ago.

The night before, knowing we would visit, I dreamed of the same place over and over again: a dark, cavernous, floury space, warm with yeast and hot ovens.

When I was a child, my mother worked in a bakery. Brand’s in Gravesend, as everyone knew, sold the best bread in town, and its cakes were the stuff of legend.  Mum was a confectioner by training, and worked upstairs, decorating gateaux and lacing intricate messages onto birthday cakes in royal icing.

Every summer holiday, I used to spend a day with her for a treat. She had a machine that pumped out fresh cream, and access to giant tins of mandarin oranges, buckets of sugar strands and boxes of chocolate leaves that could be stacked and crunched in piles of five. Everything tasted good there. I was allowed to plant a cherry onto the fresh cream rosettes of her chocolate cakes, and to squeeze the jam into doughnuts. Mainly, though, I ate: there were always the trimmings of a genoise sponge to clear up, and shards of broken brandy snap. I was, unsurprisingly, a plump child.

But the part that has stuck in my dreams the most is the bakery, which was downstairs, backing onto the yard. It was – as it seemed to me at the time – a magical kind of space, where men in dirty white coats laboured over enormous mixers, and slid trays of bread into ovens that stacked vertically like a chest of drawers. The smell was extraordinary: imagine dipping your nose into a bag containing a warm loaf, and multiply that by a thousand.

At the end of my working day, Mr Brand himself would make a fuss of me, taking me into the front shop and letting me choose a box of cakes to take home (as if I hadn’t already eaten quite enough). My favourites were little, dense lemon buns with sugar crystals on the top, wrapped in blue and white paper.

Writing this, I realise it makes me sound unfathomably old: for a bakery like that to exist in my lifetime, run by the rosy-cheeked old baker after whom it was named. But I’m only 35. And it feels like that world has been lost and won again in my lifetime.

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At some point, I don’t remember when, my mum came home and said that her branch of Brand’s had been taken over by another local baker, Smith’s. There was trepidation; I remember my grandma at the time saying, ‘Smith’s bread never tastes right,’ and my mum saying, ‘Well what can I do?’

From her airy room above the shop, she was moved to an industrial estate on the edge of town, where her new domain was a windowless room lit by strip-lights. In the summer, it was hot and impossible, filled with wasps that would splatter in rainbow colours if you could catch them, depending on what bucket of icing they had been feeding on before their demise.

There were many things mum liked about the change: she inherited a new-fangled projector that let her superimpose any picture over a cake, and there were people to chat to while she worked.  But there were things she hated, too. She was using up all her ingenuity on cakes that just weren’t ever going to taste that nice, no matter how finely she iced them.

I remember her coming home one night with a tea towel and a spatula that had Dairylight printed on them. The rep had come today, she told us, and, look, we even got freebies to take home. It’s nothing like fresh cream, she said, but I expect we’ll switch to it anyway. It’s cheaper, and it keeps. I don’t suppose anyone will notice the difference.

Dairylight was a substitute for fresh, whipped cream; you’ve probably tried it. It taste a bit like buttercream, but without the butter. Even as a child, I didn’t like it. As an adult, I find it horrifying. Apart from being sweet, the best you can say for it is that it acts as a lubricant. A fresh cream cake has a shelf life of one day, perhaps less than that when it’s hot. A Dairylight cake can be packed away when the shop closes, and brought out again the next morning.

You see how it works: because the cream lasts longer, the cakes are less fresh too. It’s cheaper, but the costs aren’t passed on to the consumer. Suddenly, everyone’s buying cakes that just aren’t particularly compelling. And then they’re not that bothered about buying them. What’s the point? You can buy something nicer from the supermarket.

After a while, the bakery couldn’t justify a second confectioner on staff, and so mumwas in that room every day on her own, making cakes that didn’t taste very good. The birthday cakes were no better: it was the early 90s, and the delicate icing at which she excelled had gone out of fashion, replaced by fiddly sugarpaste flowers and an endless parade of boob cakes.

And she did all this in the days before minimum wage existed. Every night, she came home and started again, icing yet more cakes  – this time wedding cakes for private clients. She was sick of the sight of cake; still is. It didn’t matter how good she was because nobody cared for skill. They wanted cheep, cheerful bulk.

On the day that Smith’s went bankrupt, mum was off sick after a back operation. Her car, a beautiful old Wolseley inherited from my great aunt, was parked in the yard. It was repossessed with the rest of the company’s assets. She could have got it back; but by then, she didn’t even care about that. She asked her doctor to certify her unfit for work, and he did. She’d had enough.

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There’s a longer story, one in which my mum finds happiness again in Marks & Spencer, and invests her culinary knowledge into first-class heckling at The Great British Bakeoff. But that’s for another day.

When we talk about discernment, we often think first of snobbery, of braying wine buffs and impossibly expensive shoes. But this is the discernment that matters in real life: buying good things from businesses that care about both their products and their staff.

Eating at Fitzbillies, and later gazing over their open kitchen, gave me hope. The story of our traditional shops doesn’t have to be one of slow decline. The same components are there as at Brand’s and Smith’s: the enormous mixers and bread ovens, the shop front selling cakes and buns.

But there’s a fresh energy there too, and a renewed concern for quality. And if we want to keep these places, we, as customers have to do something very traditional. We have notice whether bread is good or bad, whether the cream is fresh and whether someone, in a room upstairs, has taken care over how the cherries are placed.

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7 Comments

  1. Fabulous post Betty, we had an excellent bakers at the parade of shops where we did our shopping, in the days when there weren’t any supermarkets (mid 1960s). They would sell us bread flour and yeast, and made the most wonderful bloomer breads with poppy seeds on. I would be sent to buy a loaf and my mother knew that a good 2 inches of crust would be stripped off the end of the loaf. I would try to resist but always had to shamefacedly admit that I had fallen by the crusty wayside by the time I was halfway home.

    This shop also had artificial cream cakes. They were awful. I wouldn’t eat them, although my brother loved their sugary fatty flavour. But he didn’t like butter and would only eat margarine so he obviously had funny taste buds.

    For my mother, father and myself, there was cream cake only on a Friday when they made Fresh Dairy Cream cakes (do you remember the signs – I think they had a little cow on them?) I would nearly always have an apple turnover, the top crunchy with sugar and the inside full of dense cream and sharp apples.

    They make cream apple turnovers at the local bakers now, but they aren’t the same. They have a factory lightness about them that MY apple turnovers didn’t have.

    It is delightful to know that there are still places like Fitzbillies (and Betty’s in Harrogate) that are keeping the traditions alive. Somebody should start a countrywide directory of bakers that make PROPER cakes and buns.

    They would need judges of course. So that’s you and me for starters….

  2. BettyHerbert

    Now THERE’s a job. I’d love to see a return to those wonderful, simple cakes like turnovers that are perfect if they’re well made. All those silly cupcakes are just OTT. Give me a good old currant bun any time.

  3. Susan Gagie

    Stories such as this leave you reminiscing and yearning for the “good old days” when hot cross buns were not available all year round, but only on Good Friday , when the surrounding streets were filled with the aroma of cinnamon and customers queued for their yearly treat, when the bread was tasty and hand shaped, and when there were good honest flavours, not artificial taste a likes! Uninterested as I am to go back to my icing days, I still hanker for those gorgeous fresh cream creations, piping freshly whipped cream into an array of small cakes and gateaux and could still see myself creating these delicacies even now for my and other peoples enjoyment.

  4. Heidi Colthup

    Well this isn’t helping my diet!
    Lovely post :)

  5. Sixtyish

    Wonderful blog. Brought back happy memories of Fitzbillies in early 70′s when they were famous for their ENORMOUS irregular shaped CREAM filled CHOCOLATE fudge drenched choux pastries. Students queued on a Saturday (as well as during lectures) to gorge there. I know. I was one of them. Yes, couldn’t agree more about cup cakes. Just not the same.

  6. Melissa

    I loved Brands in Gravesend. You had Smiths and Philpotts, but Brands was the best. I can still see all the cakes, perfectly displayed in the shop windows. Christmas and Easter time was an absolute delight. From, as early as I can remember in the 70′s and up until their closure, every Christmas we would go to Perry Street, to collect our pre-ordered torten gateaux and a yule log and of course, one or usually two cakes, from the shop window, to eat when we got home. Cream slices, ganaches, genoise fancies, jap cakes, meringues were some of my favourites, especially the ganache with the mound of thick mousse-like chocolate with a chocolate flake perfectly placed. Mmmm… I almost forgot the tall walnut whips, with the tower of chocolate covered soft, creamy marshmallow placed on a lovely buttery sponge filled tart. Oooh, I could eat one right now! Thanks for the post and many thanks to your mum for making such wonderful delights and giving me such great memories!

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