Guardianistas, Tweeters and East Anglian locals are probably all too aware of the recent plight and rehabilitation of Fitzbillies Bakery in Cambridge. For those uninitiated few, Stephen Fry, Cambridge alumnus, tweeted early last year that, after 90 years, Fitzbillies was to close its doors for the last time. Food writer Tim Haywood's wife, herself a Cambridge native, made an appointment to view the Grade II listed bun shop and the rest, as they say, is history (for anyone looking for a bit more than a potted overview you can read all about it here).
On our recent jaunt to East Anglia, Fitzbillies was high at the top of the list. Working to a tight eating schedule that would allow us to consume the most amount of calories in the shortest time possible, we managed to squeeze in a tea-time visit before our early dinner at the Cambridge Chop House(Fitzbillies also offers more substantial meals and snacks at lunchtime and a proper dinner menu at weekends).
And I'm very glad we did. There is possibly nothing more civilised, or more British than eating buns and drinking tea at four in the afternoon. The place was crammed with a eclectic mixture of parents treating their children, tourists, grannys and students. I sat, greatly entertained as the table of undergraduates next to us were emptying all their pockets for shrapnel to pay the bill while the mother on our other side chided her son for losing yet another back door key.
The bane of photographers everywhere; the laminated menu.
The selections of buns, cakes and fancies at Fitzbillies is comfortingly old school. It rather reminded me of a coffee shop (long since turned into a trendy South African deli) in next town to where I grew up. They, for reasons I can't quite fathom, also sold marbles as well as refreshments, and we would sometimes be taken there as a treat after school to spend our pocket money or to eat toasted cheese sandwiches garnished with cress (everything served there was garnished with cress).
Here you've got all the classic tea time treats and a few unfamiliar items, including a Duke of Cambridge cake. After enquiring what this might be, and being given a long and detailed explanation (a sort of chocolate biscuit cake, I believe), by our friendly waiter, he promptly announced they didn't actually have any left. Ah well, luckily everything else sounded just as good.
Due to our imminent dinner date at our tasty tea time spread was a little on the restrained side; a pot of Earl Grey for myself, cappuccino for the Ewing and a chocolate eclair and coffee choux bun to share.
The Ewing and I (unsurprisingly) argued over which bun was best; I championed the coffee choux number while she liked the chocolate eclair. For my money the eclair was decent, if unspectacular. There was plenty of freshly whipped cream filling (a little too much for me) but the chocolate topping was slightly lacklustre and I found the choux pastry a little dry.
The coffee choux bun was much more to my liking; pastry that was perfectly crisp on the outside while fluffy and soft within, and oodles of thick, sticky coffee icing that cut through the rich mountain of cream heaped in up the middle.
While our tea time visit was a real treat, it all paled into significance when we came to breakfast the following morning. It's not possible to visit Fitzbillies without sampling one of their legendary Chelsea buns, laid out on syrup-soaked trays in the window. If eating cakes in the afternoon feels slightly illicit, waking up to a great, sticky, currant laden Chelsea bun has got to rank as one of life's greatest guilty pleasures.
If such an indulgent experience wasn't enough in itself our hotel was on the route of the Cambridge half marathon that was taking place that morning. While tucked up in our bed, washing down mouthfuls of bun down with mugs of tea we had a prime view of the runners staggering towards the finish at Midsummer Common. I didn't know whether to feel smug or lardy.
The real point of this story, which meanders much like the Cam, is that you MUST EAT THIS BUN. It doesn't matter how you get hold of one; beg, borrow, steal, hitch a lift, punt up triver or order online, it is utterly imperative you experience at least one of these in a lifetime. I could try and describe the experience, but mere words are useless when faced with such ooey, gooey, syrup-laden deliciousness. Each coil of buttery dough is a hefty weight of sugar, spices and dried fruit, yet I could have easily eaten a boxful. This is a proper old- fashioned bun of the highest order, and one that would be such a shame to lose from our British bakeries in favour of more cup cakes and muffins.