Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan
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Tea (and coffee) Shops of Reyjavik, Iceland

August 16, 2011 By: ctan Category: Tea Shops

So, I went to Iceland.

My intention on going to Iceland wasn’t to see a lot of tea shops, but when I woke up with a sore throat and stuffy nose on the morning I had been planning on a whale watching boat trip, I decided I’d be much happier spending the day in warm places drinking warm things. I’m good at making decisions that make me happy. So I created myself a tour of places to drink warm things (and write) in Reykjavik.

I love coffee/tea shops. In recent years I’ve also developed an appreciation for writing in them as well. It’s not unusual for me to block out an entire day planning to go from one cafe to the next to the next in Harvard Square, writing away for 6 or more hours in 1 hour to 90 minute chunks in each shop.

My general rule of thumb when I do this is that one drink entitles me to an hour in the cafe, and if it is not crowded, perhaps up to two. When it is crowded, I’ll either give way to another customer after an hour, or buy something additional. A typical pot of tea takes an hour for me to drink anyway. I’ve followed this rule in cafes all over the USA (and now the world) and I’ve never been asked to leave a place or hurry up, yet.

Downtown Reyjavik, the capital city of Iceland, is of similar size and density to Harvard Square, only replace the college students with tourists. Like Harvard Square it has a lot of restaurants, bookstores, and coffee shops, as well as designer clothing, art, jewelry, places to hear music, and lots of people walking among them.

I’m sitting in the Eymundsson Bookstore cafe as I type this, which is the last stop on my cafe tour today… I think. (Who knows, I might yet find another one on my way back to my hotel. This bookstore is hardly the only one, and is just up the hill from the other big one that has a cafe also. EDIT: See below…!) Eymundsson Bookstore has entrances on two streets, one on Skolavordustigur , and one on Grettisgata, where there are also outdoor seats if the weather is nice (which today it is not). It’s always nice to be among books.

But let’s start this tour at the beginning, with Cafe Babalu.

I discovered Cafe Babalu on my way down the hill from Hallsgrimskirkja, the big church at the top of the hill that overlooks Reykjavik. Going up in the 8-story bell tower is a recommended tourist activity, so I walked up there at noon today and heard the chimes ring. From there I headed straight down one of the main streets, Skolavordustigur (which is the closest I can render the name in English).

Cafe Babalu!

On the ground floor, Cafe Babalu has a vestibule full of posters and notices for upcoming events, concerts, holistic healers, etc. In other words, it didn’t give the impression of a touristy place, but a real place where local folk probably hang out. You go up the stairs into the actual cafe space, which is divided into two small rooms by the water closet. Small tables and comfy couches and armchairs are tucked under the eaves of the slanted roof. Every space on the walls and dormers is taken up with quirky art as well as postcards from visitors from all over the world. My first impression was it would be a very comfortable place to pass an afternoon, and I was right.

Tea was in bags from several different companies I did not recognize, including the London Fruit and Herb Company, and one import company with an Icelandic name I don’t recall. (Ogg Something…) They give you the cup of hot water and you pull your own tea bag from the selection of boxes. A cup costs 320 kronur (about $3.20 at current exchange) and they gladly offered me more hot water to re-steep. They also have “World Famous” New York Style cheesecake which I did not get, but several other patrons did. They serve sandwiches and hot food of various kinds, too. I ended up getting the cauliflower soup, which was outstanding, and the bread it came with was delicious as well, with some kind of seeds in. ($5) I had a nice Assam and a not bad Green Tea with Black Currant. Both were perfectly acceptable for bag tea, and the atmosphere was conducive to writing and hanging out. One family came in and played Sequence, the board game my parents are addicted to. Many young couples, both gay and straight, came and went throughout the afternoon. The music was an eclectic mix of American standards of many genres, from big band and Frank Sinatra to 80s pop and classic rock. Overall the place had a nice hippie/Bohemian feel.

The Wifi at Cafe Babalu was free and there were power strips near many of the seats. In fact, every cafe I went to had working Wifi, which is better than I can say for many American cities, and three of the four had plentiful and obvious power plugs. Even though they turned out to have the smallest tea servings and only bagged tea, I liked it best.

Cafe Babalu got a bit crowded after 4pm, so I moved on down the street to look for another place to try. My next stop was Kaffitar, which was about as close to a Starbucks or a Peet’s Coffee and Tea as I’ve seen outside the US. Like Starbucks, the cashier takes your order while the barista whips it up and calls it out on the sideboard, an they have a small selection of pastries and chocolate. Lots of people were sitting solo with laptops along the sides and in the window, while groups were mostly at the tables in the center.

Kaffitar: very Starbucks-like, in a good way.

The chalkboard menu was entirely in Icelandic but like many things, if you just sound it out, it’s obvious what it says. That “soja mjolk” was “soy milk” seemed obvious. So were “sukkulat” (chocolate) and “kaffi” (coffee), “te” (tea) etc. Icelandic has its share of English cognates one can make out, like “undir” for “under”, “Opid/Lokad” for “Open/Closed (locked)” and so on. But this isn’t true of all food words–most menus I needed to read the English version, but not in Kaffitar. I think it’s possible that when it comes to tea, coffee, and chocolate, which were so widely traded from their source lands, you’re going to find a uniformity of the names in any of the seafaring trade countries. After all, chai, tcha, cha, tea, ti, tea are all the same word.

Which leads me to wondering if tea shop/coffee shop culture is similar all over the world, if it comes from similar roots. I’ve had this thought before, at the Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, where at the very least it becomes clear that at least in many European designations (Russian, French, Spanish, Danish…) that the coffee shop/tea shop as a highly similar sort of place is uniform. And comparing it to the Asian version of the tea house, well, I feel a lot of parallels. Which leads me to conclude that…? Intellectuals like drinking boiled water? Yeah.

I got a soy milk chai latte at Kaffitar and it was quite nicely made, not overly sweet, and served in a tall, thick glass. Chai is $4, with 60 cents extra for soja mjolk.

I didn’t stay long in Kaffitar, just under an hour, as it looked like the rain actually lightened up for a bit, so I explored the town some more. At 5pm most of the clothing and jewelry stores close up, but the touristy places and the bookshops remain open. I looked through the window at a shop called Mokka (which I suppose is a cognate for Mocha), but didn’t stop. If I were to come back to Reykjavik someday, I would probably give Mokka a try as well. I stuck my head into Prikid, which advertised itself as the “oldest coffee shop in Iceland” but it was more of a bar than a coffee shop in the mold I was looking for. There were very few seats and it didn’t look comfortable.

Prikid.

Which leads me to my next distinction, there seems to be a divide between the coffee shops that don’t serve alcohol and those that do. Those that do seem to be more like bars generally. Not that bars/pubs are not closely associated with many writers throughout history as well, but none of the ones I found in Reykjavik seemed quite what I was looking for, and typically I prefer the style where beer and alcohol are not served. (An exception might have been the Two Sawyers pub in Canterbury, where I would have gladly spent an afternoon writing had I been in town long enough, but they really didn’t serve tea or coffee except as an afterthought to their pub menu.)

Eymundsson from the Skolavordustigur side.

After walking around quite a bit more, and window shopping at some gift shops, I ended up back at the place I am now, the Eymundsson Bookstore. I had wandered in here before on my way down Skolavordustigur from Cafe Babalu, and came back in on my way back to my hotel from the Grettisgata entrance.

From the Grettisgata side.

Here I found the best tea so far, served loose leaf in a pot with a separate cup! Heaven. And only $3.60 for a pot that has lasted me so far for nearly an hour. I’m drinking a mango sencha that seems quite decent. They use a deep steep basket — I should have taken it out of the pot long ago, but it hasn’t grown excessively bitter. I have no idea what brand of tea it is, but the cafe inside the Eymundsson seems to be a franchise of the local chain “Te & Kaffi.” (I saw two other locations of Te & Kaffi while walking around, and one at the airport.) It was much more crowded in here in the afternoon, but now that it is dinner hour (7pm) there are fewer people and plenty of empty tables. Like both previous places, the Wifi works perfectly, is free, and there are plugs.

Now I should probably go find some actual dinner, though.

LATER: Well, I had dinner at a thai soup shop called Noodle Station, which smelled hearteningly delicious as I went up the street. (Recall I have a cold.) They sell only two things: thai chicken soup and thai beef soup. If you’ve had vietnamese pho, this was similar, but slightly more spicy. Rice noodles, broth, mint leaves, bean sprouts, topped with ground peanuts and chili paste. Perfect.

And then on my way back to my hotel from there, I ended up stopping in the Mal og Menning bookstore on Laugavegur Street, which is still open at 9pm local time. And which has on its second floor the Sufistinn Book Cafe. Their logo is sort of Starbucks-ish from a distance.

From Iceland Food & Drink

Inside I found a busy but not overly crowded cafe in a similar style to the one in Eymundsson (and indeed to bookstore cafes in US places such as the late Borders stores). Here again I found a nice list of loose leaf tea that I could even see in glass jars, and a selection of pastry. (A sign on the wall also offered some kind of tikka masala curry.) I opted for a Vietnamese Jasmine, which I thought would go nicely after my noodle soup dinner. Not the best jasmine I have ever had, but then I have had some very high grade jasmines in my time. Again the Wifi was free-flowing. I did not get a seat near the edge of the room or window, but it looks like there are maybe not quite as many power plugs here as in the previous three shops I had visited.

From Iceland Food & Drink

The jasmine was served in an oversized coffee cup, with the leaves in a clamp-style strainer. I think they might close here in half an hour as the staff are doing some vaguely cleany-uppy things behind the counter, but the people sitting around me seem in no hurry. There are two other people with laptops (both the same variety of MacBook Pro as I have, interestingly enough), one writing in a journal by hand, one reading a book, one reading a magazine, a mom and her young daughter both reading, and then three small groups of people chatting over their coffee.

And now, really, I will go back to my hotel, since I must be up early to catch my flight back to Boston. Once I get there, I might brew myself a cup of ginger herbal (Twinings, purchased at a Tesco Express in London). All these civilized countries have water boilers in the hotel rooms, even the cheap-ass place I stayed by King’s Cross. (Of course, the coffee’s instant, but I don’t care about that…)

Until next, my lovelies, over a warm cup.

The tea set-up in my room at the 4th Floor Hotel.

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