AFTER a while there is only so much mud and splash you can take on a walk in the countryside and then for our last outing of the holiday season we took a paved walk around Wear in the middle of Durham City.
With the cathedral towering majestically over our heads on its wooded banks, and our feet hot and dry, this walk along the river is as satisfying as a day in the soft Dales, and the entrance to the city over the Kingsgate Bridge at the treetop is practically as exciting as topping any top.
Then we ate at Vennels, a cafe shrouded in the heart of the city – it is approached by two narrow alleys that run from Saddler Street and collide with a patio where there are umbrellas, a patio heater and blankets for those brave enough to eat. outside in January. In these virus-affected days, all tables on Sunday were taken.
The café itself is housed in a dark 16th-century building, and you stand in line to place your order and pick up your food.
The queue gives you time to consider the menu – fabulous and inventive sandwiches, like ham, cheese and caramelized onions and mornay sauce, or roasted beets, feta and garlic mayo; some touching soups like Durham ham broth; lots of homemade pies and quiches and a fine selection of cakes – and the meaning of the word “friend”.
Vennel is a Scottish word, found from Aberdeen down to Perth and Edinburgh, meaning an alley – perhaps its origin is from Latin for “oar”, or perhaps, like a ginnel, it comes from a canal. Most of the Northeast, from Lindisfarne to Newcastle and Chester-le-Street, uses the word “chare” for its alleys, but south of Bishop Auckland – where there are four chares – the alleys of Darlington, Richmond and Bedale are known as “wynds “. Durham is trapped in two minds: it has a chare, but it is also the only place in England that uses “vennels” for its alleys in the city center.
“It is a very good choice; they are amazing, ”said the lady at the checkout in Vennels, waking me from my etymological contemplation when Theo, my son, ordered a Roadside Steak Burger. It came with “lots of fried onions oozing with cheese” (£ 8.50), as opposed to its poolside companion which came with “slices of cheese, raw salad, yellow mustard and ketchup”. Seconds later, word came from the kitchen that there were no burgers. Instead, he took, with plentiful excuses, a Parma ham and Swiss cheese baguette (£ 6.50).
Petra, my wife, took a bowl of spicy sweet potato and red pepper soup plus a “stinky stilton scones” (£ 4.50 plus £ 2.50), whereas I chose the most expensive item on the menu: Vennels Important Picnic (£ 12.50 ).
The fireplace upstairs in the historic Vennels
Instead of defying the exterior, we carried our food up the wooden stairs, creaking like a ship in a storm, to the characterful rooms on the first floor, where the floor fell and threw itself, so that one felt like walking on the deck of the rolling ship. We sat on old chapel chairs with pockets on the backs for hymn books and at tables where there were still steps for sewing machines. We stared out at a fascinating hernia of centuries-old bricks, stones, slate, tiles, and windows in the buildings that line the river.
Theos baguette (over) was soft, well filled and quickly ingested. Petra considered her dish a good winter soup, with a little heat, but she could still taste both the potato and the pepper (below). Her scone had a stilton flavor with a comfortable wave of moldy socks.
My picnic (over) was huge. I got two slices of a corned beef and potato pie, a slice of spinach and cheese quiche, a bun of cheddar cheese and onion jam, plus a hot sausage, a roll of ham and a bowl of pickles: sliced gherkins, a vinegar egg and an onion bigger than a golf ball that defied all attempts to spit it out with a fork. At first effort, it rolled off around the plate; at the other it jumped into the table. Fearing that it would soon lie on the floor, I stuck it with my fingers and pushed it into it with my knife, but the center of it shot out onto Theos’ plate, like a torpedo from its launcher.
I had chosen the picnic because I could not decide between the pies and the sandwiches, and my indecision was rewarded: a homely pie, hearty quiche, plus a touch of sweetness from the jam. It was a paradise for pickles lovers, though if I had compiled it, I would have been more frugal with pickles and added a hint of mustard to the ham and maybe a blob of chutney.
Nevertheless, it kept me going all day.
We had had the foresight to collect a few cakes when we stood at the counter – the family at the table opposite had not come along at the end of the queue and were away all the time, I struggled with my giant picnic – and shared a very good chocolate (£ 3.50) (over) and an excellent gluten-free orange and almond (£ 4) (below), which was quite puddingy for a cake, but retained both of its delicate flavors.
Our bill for three, with drinks, came to £ 43.20. The queues for Vennels may require a bit of a wait, but the food is fresh, vibrant and, for a cafe, imaginative, and the historic building is a pleasure to be in – if you can find it at the end of these whateveryoucallems: wynds, chares , alleys, ginnels or vennels.
Food quality: 8
Value for money: 8
Saddlers Yard, Saddler Street, Durham DH1 3NP
Telephone: 0191-375-9635 (no table reservation)