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.
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.
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.1