The Tab Talks to Fitzbillies
BETH SWORDS talks to the Tim Hayward, the owner of Fitzbillies, about very sticky buns.
Freshers, you’ve been here just over a week. You’ve sampled enough cheesy chips and Jaegar Bombs (a traditional Cambridge tipple) to last you a while. However, why let the indulgence stop there? You’ve nailed your late night attack on your arteries and now you’re looking for somewhere during daylight hours to get your coffee, cake and Bloody Mary fix. I thought so.
For those of you who are unaware, Fitzbillies, in many people’s eyes, is an esteemed Cambridge institution – a café near to and owned by Pembroke College. It’s famed for its Chelsea Buns and has been around for decades.
BETH SWORDS talks to the owner, Tim Hayward, who doubles as an FT columnist, has dabbled with reviews for the Guardian and has his own magazines Gin & It and Fire and Knives. Two years ago, his wife spotted a tweet by Stephen Fry lamenting the near bankruptcy and closure of the café. They took a leap of faith and Thank the Lord, pulled it back from the brink.
What’s your link to Cambridge? Did Fitzbillies have any resonance with you before you took it on?
I didn’t know of it at all. My wife, in fact, grew up here since her dad was the bursar at St Catz. I had had a lot of experience working in catering and Al, my wife, is in brand consultancy, having just finished relaunching Santander. We were ready to take on this project – Fitzbillies had been running down for over a decade, cake boxes here and there and the college had not even charged rent for a very long time.
Up to that time, I had only ever spent 3 hours in Cambridge.
What’s the theme? Quaint English café or more Italian?
Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think that question is a sign of our maturity as a food culture in Britain. If you were in France, in a town of this size, you would go into a café presuming it would be food of the region and not necessarily the country. We’re not trying to be English or Italian, we’re trying to be local and seasonal. We’re not doctrinaire about it.
Why do you think it’s so successful?
As a brand, it’s got 90 years worth of local love – we’re doing cakes for our first funeral this month, for a baker who worked here in the 80s. We’ve had marriage proposals in here and a two-week overdue pregnant lady for dinner, giving birth that very evening. The baby, as it happens, gets a free bun when he comes in. We plaster students coming in for interviews with coffee and cater for any bicycle crash on Pembroke Street corner.
[Take note, if you’re strapped for cash and yearn for a Fitzbillies bun, get pregnant and time the labour to occur when in the shop. Simple]
What is the typical Cambridge attendee?
I have not been here long enough to differentiate between town and gown [give it time] but I know we get a lot of quirky academics. The women’s hockey team seem to come here a lot.
Then, there was the occasion when the rowers discovered our granola. One time, we noticed we were making a huge loss on it. It turns out our baristas had been getting distracted by these huge, incredibly handsome rowers, giving them as much granola as they wanted. They did wear clothes, but they might as well not bother. Simply Greek Gods. We kept the bloody boat going. Now, we’ve made a rule where we allow extra bowls for oarsmen in the months leading to the boat race.
I always come in for a Coffee Choux Bun and an Earl Grey, what’s your ideal coffee scenario?
Ah, I should mention our theory of gender splits. You’re quite the anomaly. A coffee choux bun tends to be a big bloke cake. Women asking for fondant fancies, yep, even a chocolate éclair but a choux bun is a man’s bun [brief psychoanalysis of myself there].
It’s 9am on the Monday of Freshers Week, what’s the best hangover cure you can offer me?
Well, in fact, I think my ideal coffee scenario would involve having a mild agreeable hangover, the morning after. It’s the whole breakfast thing – a really lovely, soft, slightly woozy hangover is really deserved.
If you’ve done it well, had a nice meal, little bit too much to drink and said a few indiscretions, you deserve your orange juice/Bloody Mary, cortado – having been introduced to them by Ferran Adria – and eggs on toast. [I think you would be in the minority if you could describe a swap at Mai Thai as a “nice meal” and the ensuing hangover as “deserved”].
That, accompanied by ‘reading’ Sunday newspapers and followed by a 40 minute stand in a hot shower is the ideal [detailing what I would do for the rest of the day].
Chelsea Buns. What, why, how?
We use a metric tonne of bun syrup in one month and sell 3,000 buns every week. It’s a light industrial process using Victorian constructive methods and syrup made by a specialist refiner in Croydon. Back in the day, there used to be bun wars round Cambridge. Where we now fight for freer wifi and better quality coffee, they used to fight over who had the stickier buns. There was one shop that displayed a whole tray of buns in the window, pouring jugs of syrup over it every ten minutes. When you think about it, it’s revolting.
Tim Hayward’s newest book Food DIY was released in October and deals with ‘manly’ cooking.