If there’s a recurring theme that’s emerged from the radio series on bread I’m making it’s this; there is something both very honourable and deeply satisfying about doing something very simple, very, very well.
It’s been a siren song for many of the people I’ve interviewed about baking, not least Tim Hayward; chef turned adman turned food writer turned proprietor of that bun shop sine pari; Fitzbillies in Cambridge.
Tim’s feature for the Guardian about snatching Fitzbillies from the maw of the administrators is a great piece of food writing that fizzes with enthusiasm. “There are buns, there weren’t buns, there are buns again,” Tim told me. It’s the bun equivalent of the Gospel of John the Evangelist; Chapter One, Verse One.
An old friend who knows Tim had insisted we meet. I staggered into Fitzbillies fresh from recording an interview about Palaeolithic bread on the Gog Magog Hills just south of the city and just having crawled across Parker’s Piece through a cutthroat wind straight from Siberia. Any warmth would have been welcome. Fitzbillies was warm in a dozen ways; the colours, the smells, the welcome, the atmosphere, the coffee and more.
There were candles in the window, small meringue snowmen, chocolate mouse cakes, the tiny iced flowers on the cakes all made by hand – asymetrical, mis-shapen and all the more perfect for their imperfections.
There are so many signs that Fitzbillies isn’t simply a business. It’s both human and collective in the way that so many of our greatest enterprises of the past have been and so few businesses are today.
When Tim talks about the team that works at Fitzbillies he constantly finds himself explaining how his colleagues add something of themselves unbidden, for pleasure and from pride.
Tim is someone who really thinks about food – he doesn’t just treat writing about it as mere sensual reportage with lab notes for recreating the experience at home – he’s aware of the wider contexts the understanding of which allows us to appreciate food more fully; the wherefores and the whys.
So when he talks about Fitzbillies’ Chelsea Buns he doesn’t just extol their unmatched stickiness, he sees them as embodying the affordable treat that British cooking – I won’t say cuisine, it’s not that far up its own fat-trap – is founded on.
The original Chelsea Bun House was a favourite of 18th Century London, royalty included, on Grosvenor Row in Pimlico ( Pimlico was a rough area, so using the Chelsea tag was a Georgian marketing ruse).
They quickly became classless and cheap and gave the urban poor a fleeting taste of the good life. They summon up an image of children saving their pocket money to buy a sticky bun straight out of Dickens or Richmal Crompton.
There’s nothing sophisticated about them, they’re not delicate, if you rattle on about the notes and flavours pinging around your tastebuds like a pinball then you may well be in need of sedation.
A sticky bun is pure sticky, sweet, stodgy carbohydrate. It’s a momentary escape to a happy place. But Tim takes huge pride in trying to ensure that the Chelsea Buns produced in Fitzbillies’ kitchens are a passport to a syrupy Elysian Fields.
So I grabbed my mic and recorded a chat with Tim. At times it’s a couple of blokes having a bit of a ramble, we go off on occasional tangents, we laugh – but I think it gives a good account of Tim; his commitment, his down to earthness, his sense of fun and the feeling that, having escaped the undead world of advertising, he’s once more really alive.
Aside from that it’s probably the first time I’ve got a sound effect from a cake that doesn’t involve its being eaten. The squelch as the Chelsea Buns were prized from the baking tray was an invitation to get one’s fingers really very sticky.
It’s a simple pleasure but one, thanks to a good dollop of love and commitment, that is simply joyous.