Black Fuel: Guest Post from Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates
Every now and then I intend to slip in a guest post from someone who knows Iceland or Icelandic crime writing.

My first victim is Quentin Bates.  Like me, Quentin is an Englishman who writes crime novels set in Iceland.  He has also translated a number of the top Icelandic crime writers into English, including Lilja Sigurdardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, Solveig Pálsdóttir and Óskar Gudmundsson.  He knows Iceland much better than I do.  He has worked on an Icelandic trawler, lived in the country and married an Icelander.  I recommend his series featuring Sergeant Gunhildur, the first book of which is Frozen Out

Here he discusses the vital importance of coffee to the Icelanders.  

There’s a black fluid that keeps the Nordic countries functioning. I don’t mean the stuff that’s pumped out of the depths of the North Sea by bearded roustabouts, but that other black liquid that’s the staple cliché of every Nordic crime drama.

Wallander more or less set the pace, functioning on a diet of coffee and not much else. But it’s not a cliché. Life in the Nordic countries really is lubricated by the oils and essences of the coffee bean, and Iceland is no exception.

Years ago there were a couple of brands of coffee in Iceland, such as Bragakaffi that most people bought in catering-sized bags and which was percolated into the black fluid that accompanied every aspect of life. Well, not quite. Let’s say every aspect of life that didn’t involve something that had been distilled.

It was easy then. Coffee was made with hot water and a filter, or occasionally in a machine that fizzed and steamed until it produced a jug of black stuff that went into a thermos. Everyone drank coffee and anyone who didn’t was generally deemed to be slightly odd. Tea was an aberration, something that old ladies might delicately sip, although the strongest, thickest coffee I have ever been served, guaranteed to keep you awake for the best part of a week, was made by a lady close to her hundredth birthday who undoubtedly never let a drop of tea pass her lips.

But then, in the years after I left Iceland, things started to change. Icelanders became coffee connoisseurs. Now there are coffee bars everywhere serving mochas, lattes, cappuccinos and a whole bunch of other oddities that have passed me by. It’s all very 101.

That’s 101 in the sense of the central postal district of Reykjavík 101 where the coolest people live and work. When asked what sort of coffee I’d like, I tend to look baffled and ask for old-fashioned coffee-style coffee, which generally elicits a look of pity from the barista and out comes the thermos they keep under the bar for bumpkins like me.

Kaffi Mokka Reykjavik photo by Michael Ridpath author of teh Magnus Iceland Mysteries

The expression ‘lattelepjandi’ (latte-lapping) has even entered the language as an epithet invariably applied to the sensitive liberal types of downtown Reykjavík 101. It’s generally good-natured, but it’s meant to highlight the disconnect between city dwellers and much of the rest of the country. According to (probably wildly inaccurate) local legend, the hipsters of 101 don’t like to even step outside their district, essentially limiting their horizon to an area the size of a few streets on a postage stamp crowded with coffee bars.

But the hardest part to deal with is the office coffee-maker. In the past, there would be a canteen and a percolator. There was always coffee there, even though it maybe wasn’t always piping hot. Its place has now been taken by a hulking silver-grey machine, all brushed aluminium, buttons, switches and drawers, that glares back at you, daring the faint-hearted user to touch its buttons with their minimal indications of what their functions might be.

Looking at it, I feel as helpless as Arthur Dent confronted by the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser. The only difference being that the coffee machine doesn’t engage you in conversation, yet. But if it could talk, it would undoubtedly be to sneer and pass sarcastic personal comments about the abysmal dress sense of the hapless inferior being in front of it who just wants a cup of ordinary coffee.

One editor told me mournfully that he had switched to tea after the new coffee machine had been installed in the canteen, and that his assistant editor had been sent on a two-week training course to learn how to use it.

Selected coffee beans go in one side of the flashing and humming machine. Milk goes in a secret compartment. If another drawer is full of used beans, then a light flashes and the machine throws a tantrum, refusing to budge an inch until its needs have been pandered to. It may well roll on its back and expect its tummy to be tickled, but I haven’t seen that happen, yet.

There are a dozen different permutations of black fluid depending on which buttons are pressed and in which order, making the machine whirr, grind, growl and finally dribble into a paper cup, and it doesn’t seem to matter a great deal which buttons are pressed and in what order, as the resulting liquid always seems to be a dark brown soup that is almost like old-fashioned coffee-style coffee, but not quite.

I dread to think what Kurt Wallander or any of the other dour Nordic coffee-swilling sleuths (my own rotund heroine included) would make of it.


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