By Stevie Parle | Published on 11 January 2019
As a chef and restaurateur, I know all about transformation. Transforming some cupboard stapes into a suitable supper, a crop of seasonal vegetables into a crowd-pleasing plate or left overs into the main event of a new main course. As part of my job I’m also always out and about – meeting suppliers, trying new restaurants, tasting new flavours. It’s vital I regularly get out of the kitchen to get inspired and continue my own journey of discovery as a chef.
So when Great Northern approached me to be part of their Line Residencies campaign, celebrating transformational journeys up and down their network, I knew I would relish the opportunity to get out of London and visit some people and places who have experienced some incredible stories of transformation. First up – London to Cambridge: I’ve been hearing stories about Fitzbillies for years. This legendary cake shop in the heart of Cambridge has got form, serious form, and to me, it’s as important a part of Cambridge as the colleges or museums, maybe even the boats.
I’m no stranger to food pilgrimage; I’ve travelled for days for dinner in the snow-clad mountains in Sweden, visited the town of Belem outside Lisbon specifically to taste the delicious Portuguese custard tarts that originate there, stayed up all night in Tokyo to experience the wholesale tuna auction and the obligatory market sushi as a post-auction breakfast. So this is a pilgrimage; breakfast can change your life. The sticky buns at Fitzbillies are what dreams are made of, the holy grail/Mecca/true home of buns. Soft and sticky, yielding and incredibly desirable.
Food writer Tim Hayward and his wife, marketing guru Alison Wight were alerted to the demise of the institution by an errant tweet by the great Stephen Fry. After a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style pitch to landlords Pembroke College, Alison bought Fitzbillies out of receivership. The family moved to Cambridge and after 3 months of refurbishment they reopened the doors on 19 August last year to an eager queue of Chelsea bun aficionados, evidently thrilled to see their beloved town bakery brought back from the brink.
I can relate to this type of life changing impulse purchase, I’ve collected a rag tag bunch of very special London restaurants - sometimes things just call to you. Sometimes a place like Fitzbillies just has to be saved, to be transformed from a sad story to a happy one.
So on my visit it was great to see this formerly-bankrupt institution rammed full of people eating breakfast, drinking great coffee and proper English Tea. It is a spot so full of life and buns it reaffirms your belief in life and transforms your day, if not your week. Isn't it amazing that a £2 bun can do so much? Trust me, have a bun, buy a box and give them to your loved ones and they will love you more.
I chatted with Tim outside the 100 year old shop front and he told me about the role of the place in the community - of the old man who used to make the royal icing flowers for the wedding cakes even when he was too ill to leave his house and would send them over - and explained how he felt more of a custodian of the old place than an owner. Tim said he felt his obligation to the customers and the staff was to change the place, and improve it without really changing anything, retaining the essence even without changing the recipes.
In my everyday world of niche London restaurants, venues, and indeed dishes, the word ‘iconic’ often gets used in an attempt to denote importance, but they rarely are. The Fitzbillies sticky bun, however, is more than an icon. It’s a beacon of hope in this bleak world, a moment of timeless joy, a moment of happiness, a moment you feel connected to your fellow human. Fitzbillies is a heart-warming and mouth-watering story of transformation - and I would urge everyone to pay this ‘beacon of buns’ in Cambridge a visit.