When I lived in Cambridge, I was an angst-ridden teenager, with a penchant for misery, waistcoats and questionable ethnic clothing such as Guatemalan patchwork tops and tie-dye. At the time, the town was for me a seething hotbed of frustrated desires and misunderstandings – the atmosphere at my school was toxic like the film Heathers, the town’s twee-ness was suffocating (if I saw one more beautiful college building or branch of Past Times, I was going to choke), and you could never get any space from anyone you were trying to avoid. I couldn’t wait to move to the big, bad capital, and once I did, I pretty much never looked back for 20 years.
But now that I’m WELL OLD, I love visiting once in a while, even though my memories make me occasionally wince. The college buildings blind me with their splendour, and I can’t believe I lived here for 12 years and got bored of looking at them. Granted, the sheer scale of tourist numbers still makes my head hurt, but I can just about put up with an afternoon shuffling behind braying Italians and overexcited French exchange students. I can recommend an afternoon messing about on the river, punting upstream in a boat stacked full of good friends, food and booze. And there are one or two better places to eat. One of them is Fitzbillies.
Food writer Tim Hayward and his wife Alison revived the shut-down Fitzbillies bakery that opened in 1922, which had gone out of business in 2011. They have transformed it into a wonderful cafe, and it still functions as a bakery too, with an adjoining ice cream parlour. It has a lovingly preserved, beautiful old wooden shop front, and the interior has been renovated sympathetically, with sticky buns, friands and macaroons tempting visitors upon entry, giving way to a great view of chefs cooking in the open-plan kitchen. The original head bakers make the Chelsea buns, and have worked at the bakery for 89 years between them! Staff are friendly and efficient, and the food is really, really good, thanks to kick-ass chef Rosie Sykes. So good, in fact, that we bought masses of things to take home and eat that evening.
Isn’t it lovely?
The open plan kitchen:
Here’s what we had to eat:
Chopped duck liver with breads and seasonal green salad – tasted almost of Christmas, a real hit of citrus coming from the duck, yum:
The courgette and Gurney’s Gold cheese tart above might look humble, but by God it was one of the nicest things I’ve put in my gob in ages. Crisp, flaky buttery pastry (NEVER had savoury pastry that good, ever) holding a rich tart filling that was delicately flavoured with courgette and given a nice whacking punch by the Gurney’s Gold cheese. Each mouthful made me go ‘ooooooo’. So beautiful. In fact, I ordered two more IMMEDIATELY and had them boxed up to take home. Lunch for two came to about twenty quid, which I think was great value.
We couldn’t possibly leave without some treats from the cake selection: aren’t they pretty?
Indecently DRIPPING buns:
Some lovely cakes:
The raspberry and blueberry friand was gorgeous – a chewy, buttery almondy sponge cakelet dotted with perfumed fruits. Really stupid to have bought only one.
I know I sound like a food wanker, but actually think the food here was on a par with the unforgettable lunch I had in a bakery in San Francisco called Tartine a few years ago. Where I threatened to MOVE IN. I’m sure the Fitzbillies owners (if they read this) will know that this is meant as MASSIVE praise. High fives to you guys.
There you go – visitors to Cambridge now have somewhere excellent to eat lunch. Just elbow all the tourists out of the way first, or at least give them fake directions to the colleges/river – an old hobby of mine when I lived here. SO mature.
51-52 Trumpington Street
Oh – just as an endnote, I’d like to emphasise that Fitzbillies is a perfect example of how to do a renovation really well, breathing life back into a beautiful building and carrying the business forward without losing a sense of heritage. However, below is an example of how NEVER to do a renovation – driving past the beautiful 1920’s Art Deco Cafe Matthaie bakery near Richmond yesterday (which had been closed for many years, but still had all its rococo wedding cakes in the window, gathering dust Miss Havisham-style), I nearly crashed the car when I saw that it had been inhabited by Tesco Metro. I wanted to cry. How absolutely depressing and tragic that such a stunning building be colonized by the ‘Japanese Knotweed’ equivalent of businesses – Tesco. Just They have kept the shopfront and renovated it, but what an insult to this great building, really. A disgrace. I can’t think of anything worse, to be honest. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Look at the stunning shopfront, cheapened beyond measure by the Tesco logo – ugh:
Just GROSS – look at the hideous posters in the window advertising BOGOF’s:
If you want to go and see this travesty for yourself, it’s on the Kew Road, just before you enter Richmond.