During my year in Cambridge, Fitzbillies took on a somewhat mythical status for me. It was only a minutes walk from my college, possibly the nearest cake seller in a town seemingly made up of cake sellers, yet I never went there. Part of the reason may have been the outrageous amount of cake freely available to post-graduate students and part of it may have been due to the very little money that I had. But mostly it was because Fitzbillies looked so good. Seemingly endless varieties of delicious cake could be glimpsed through the window. I didn’t want to go in and ruin the illusion.
However, last week I became brave. I declared that in celebration of the imminent employment of our Victoria Sponge Correspondent, we should visit Fitzbillies and partake of the cake in all its glory. In hindsight, this has struck me to be rather a foolhardy choice. Some dreams are best left untouched.
Our mistake first emerged as we walked through the door. A very large sign blocked our path: “Wait here to be seated”. This is not uncommon. However, it is uncommon for there to be no sign of service for the next five minutes, especially in a tea shop where business could best be described as ‘languid’. There were a lot of empty seats around. Victoria Sponge and I debated whether we should perhaps seat ourselves. We are both, though, very English and not very good at disobeying signs. We therefore waited, were eventually greeted with what seemed like mild displeasure and put in our place, both literally and metaphorically.
My choice was the ordinary Chocolate Cake. Here, apparently, was my second mistake. Connoisseurs of Fitzbillies favour the French Fancies or Chelsea Buns. Unfortunately, my taste buds led me rather astray. In appearance the cake was everything that a large slice of chocolate cake should be – two slabs of sponge, held together with gooey icing. There was nothing particularly sophisticated in its appearance but when something tastes good, sophistication is not required. Instead, the sponge was dry and the icing not as sweet or fudgy as it should be. It was not that the cake was outrageously bad, more that I had expected so much more. And later experiences demonstrated just what that something more could be.
Following my trip to Fitzbillies I stopped by a birthday party for an old friend. Much cake had been provided for this auspicious occasion. There was some beautifully moist and squidgy apple cake and an overwhelming pecan pie but the star attraction was definitely the triple layer chocolate truffle cake, baked for him by a fellow student. Each layer of sponge was the perfect texture and balanced by the rich icing that managed not to overwhelm the whole. It looked spectacular. It tasted spectacular. It made me weep to think that this was everything that Fitzbillies could and should have been.