I will begin with a confession. As an infant, my first word was not ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ but ‘Frappuccino’. Whilst most people’s childhood holidays were planned around where there were good seasides, playgrounds and theme parks, mine were taken according to where there were the most Starbucks, Costa Coffees and Café Neros. Most children were weaned on milk and rusks; my diet was of ‘babycinos’ (cappuccinos for children for those of you not in the know; basically hot frothed milk) and lemon and poppy seed muffins.
Okay, so the above might be a slight exaggeration: please don’t call NSPCC just yet. But it would be true to say that my parents are self-confessed coffee shop addicts and that my family have made a sterling contribution to the colossal rise of Costa Coffee, which now has over 1,750 stores in the UK, with an average of three new ones opening each month. Such an overload of these chains is perhaps the greatest cause of my vehement shunning of them since fleeing the nest, instead revelling in the wide choice of independent cafes boasted by Durham. Passing Starbucks on my journey to and from lectures every day last year, I cursed under my breath as I saw it full of students ‘working’ over a coffee whilst the window seats at neighbouring Ciao-Ciao remained vacant. So if you are one of those loathsome chain shop supporters, let me try to persuade you to change your habits…
First and foremost, the quality of the offerings available is simply not comparable. Considering drinks, I can understand the appeal of a choice of caramel lattes, raspberry coolers and Belgian hot chocolate shots offered by the big chains, exploiting their American influences. Though, saying that, the independent cafes are fast catching up; no longer are drinks restricted to a black/milky tea or coffee. And if it’s tea that you’re after, who could resist the loose-leaf flavoured tea and quaint teapots at Tealicious? Not a paper cup in sight. Yet it’s the food where non-chain cafes really triumph. Whilst Costa, in particular, have upped their game in recent years (their limited edition mint chocolate fondant fancies are especially cute), home-made wins hands down every time. Whilst the rustic chocolate-topped rice-crispy bars of Treats may not hold the aesthetic perfection of a mass-produced slice, who would swap something freshly baked here in Durham for the sake of mere uniformity? Not only does home-made taste so much better but you can also enjoy your indulgences safe in the knowledge that they are not packed full of preservatives. Whilst this by no means that the cakes are healthy, I also like to kid myself that because the calories are not printed on a label, that they don’t count. What isn’t know can’t hurt me, right?
Top prizes for sweet treats go to Flat White for their ridiculously saccharine but totally addictive white chocolate and cranberry tiffin, Vennels for their famous scones, baked fresh each morning, and to Nine Altars for their huge array of mouth-watering sponges, including walnut cake, lemon cake, Victoria sponge; the list goes on. Oh, and if you’re still not convinced, have I mentioned the portion size difference? I might not have done a scientific study of average dimensions, but those dictated by the demands of big business definitely pale in comparison with those sliced bearing in mind what real customers want (Costa, don’t think that your recent scaling down of your tray bakes have gone unnoticed). I pride myself on my ability to eat vast quantities of dessert, but even I had to take some of my carrot cake home from Treats.
If the cakes are a superior breed in Durham’s army of locally-run cafes, the lunches are a different species. If there is one thing that I would send to a ‘Room 101’, it is the pre-packed sandwich. Who would want to spend a good £4 on anaemic bread and a paltry amount of poor-quality, days-old filling? By contrast, virtually all of Durham’s cafes offer lunches freshly made on the premises. The best? I’d definitely recommend sandwiches from Saddlers and the more innovative Mediterranean delights of Ciao-Ciao and Claypath Deli, but first prize has to go to Leonards. Try the bacon sandwich: whilst Costa offers two slices of fatty meat in a dry bread-cake, here the high-quality bacon is sandwiched within a soft white bun. I could even ask for it cooked well-done: another advantage of independent cafes is that you can ask for items cooked to your liking or fillings to be added or omitted. Remember that as you peel the mushrooms out of your Starbucks Panini! The Leonard’s Rarebit is also a highlight: a cheesy, mustardy mixture piled high on thickly-cut doorstep bread. If you’re after something a bit more filling, check out the main courses at Café Continental, anything served with Chapters’ fat chips, or the freshly baked pies from Café Cenno in the market.
If there is one thing I love about independent cafes, it’s the fact that no two experiences are ever the same. Go to Café Nero and I can guarantee you that the same choice of coffees will greet you in every single outlet (perhaps with the prices bumped up in service station and airport concessions!). However, there is nothing better than walking into a one-off café for the very first time and being amazed by the selection of treats they have on offer. Though saying that, the disappointment experienced when you go into Nine Altars and find out that it’s not blondie day is soul-destroying…
Last but not least is the opportunity to support local businesses. We’ve all heard the spiel about grocery shopping at Durham Markets instead of big bad Tesco (which, incidentally, seems to be working, reading their continual losses…); well, exactly the same goes for coffee time. Your custom supports Durham café owners, who are invariably friendly and more than happy to tell you all about their cakes. They can do this precisely because they baked them – so they’re passionate about their creations, they know exactly what they’re like and exactly what goes in them. I am particularly fond of the men in Jumping Bean, whose sense of humour always light up my day, and the staff in Nine Altars who can never do enough for you. Plus, ingredients used in local establishments are more than likely from the Durham area. So not just the local economy, but the environment benefits too, considering the reduction in food miles.
If this article hasn’t convinced you of the merits of independent cafes, I don’t know what will. Actually, I do – get out there and give them a try today. To find out more about the cafes mentioned here, visit