Some of my earliest memories of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti involved waking up to the powerful aroma of freshly brewed Haitian coffee at my uncle’s house. I’d awaken to find the table set with a white mug of steaming java accompanied by hard dough bread and a jar of peanut butter that didn’t taste like the sugary Skippy’s I was used to in America. It was your typical Haitian breakfast. The coffee was way too strong for my 8-year-old self to appreciate. As an adult, however, I’ve come to understand just how excellent Haitian coffee is and how essential it is to the island nation.
Before political unrest and natural disasters destabilized the “pearl of the Antilles,” Haiti was once responsible for half of the world’s coffee production. Now centuries later, Elda Thorisson-Faurelien is hoping to re-introduce the world to Haitian liquid gold, one coffee shop at a time. She’s started in the unlikeliest of places — Reykjavik, Iceland.
I first heard of Cafe Haiti on social media. The shop is famous among Haitian vagabonds visiting Reykjavik, because finding another Haitian person in Iceland is quite rare. Visitors would take pictures in front of Elda’s restaurant, capturing the moment they found a slice of home on an island covered in glaciers. I was skeptical at first, thinking, “Oh they probably just named it that, and it has nothing to do with Haiti.” But after a quick Google search my skepticism morphed into, “Wow! How did a Haitian end up in Iceland?!”
I went searching for that answer on my own trip to Reykjavik, where I met with Elda at Cafe Haiti located in Old Harbour. I had to know more about this intrepid woman’s journey from tropical Haiti to subarctic Iceland. I was surprised to learn that, like many great tales, this one was a love story. A three part love story, at that: Love of a spouse; love of a homeland; love of good coffee.
“My husband was from Iceland,” Elda told me in Haitian Creole over a cup of hot coffee.
It was around 2 pm, her “slow time.” We were seated in the corner of her surprisingly spacious restaurant. The decor was a mix of Haiti and Iceland — with drawings of both palm trees and massive whales adorning the walls. Newspaper clippings and pictures were hung in the back of the space and were accompanied by a collection of wooden knick knacks. The coffee’s aroma immediately transported me back to the Caribbean.
“My husband was initially living in Haiti with me,” Elda said, smiling. “I already knew a lot about Iceland, even though I had never been, because he was always talking about it. He suggested I visit before deciding if I wanted to move back with him, but I agreed to live without ever coming here.
Elda wasn’t phased by the stark differences in culture or weather. She wanted to make the move for her partner.
The couple moved in 2006. Yes, the cultural difference was jarring, but it was the lack of black people that was the real shocker for Elda — who was used to living in a country where 95% of the population was black.
“There wasn’t any black people here. Period!,” the 45-year-old business woman laughs, thinking back on those first days in Iceland. “Just a bunch of white people. When we were walking down the street, people would stare at me like they’ve never seen a black person before!”
I walked a lot during my week in Reykjavik, and I can attest the black population probably doesn’t register on any scale. I counted two black people. One smiled and nodded. The other, an older man sitting on a bench facing Tjornin pond, looked excited to see me and said a friendly “hello.” There’s just something about seeing other black people in a foreign land that makes me feel like everything’s going to be okay.
Elda admits it’s much better now thanks to tourism. “If it weren’t for black tourists, I wouldn’t see any other black person here!”
Upon arriving in Reykjavik, Elda knew she wanted to start a coffee shop. It made perfect sense — since she grew up watching her family grow and roast coffee and even helped out as a young child. When she departed Haiti for Iceland, she left with eight pounds of roasted Haitian coffee beans.
“I intended to have people try Haitian coffee, even though I didn’t have a store yet,” she remembers. “I started inviting my husband’s friends over so they could taste Haitian coffee and compare it to Icelandic coffee. I was gauging interest. Luckily, they loved it!”
Over a year into living in Iceland, Elda received more coffee beans from Haiti, but this time she was roasting them in her backyard and grinding them herself. For that entire year, the aspiring entrepreneur hustled her coffee. She gave away free samples of her freshly brewed Haitian coffee everywhere — from her workplace at a local college, to the nearby supermarket, to the summer outdoor markets.
“If the customer liked it, they would buy a bag,” she says of her early beginnings. “It was a test. We were still gauging interest, but that’s how it all happened. I already had a coffee contact in Haiti and said if things worked out well, I would buy 400 pounds of coffee beans.”
Elda’s customer base grew tremendously, as her clients became hooked on her authentic Haitian brew. She eventually expanded to a small store in 2008, before settling in Cafe Haiti’s current, larger location in Old Harbour in 2010. These days she also serves sandwiches, soups, and other light food.
Clearly, Elda knows how to hustle. But she attributes her success to the greatness of Haitian coffee.
“The difference between Haitian coffee and elsewhere is in the soil,” she says. “The coffee beans come from Haiti, and I roast it on site. When you taste it, it’s much fresher. It fills the air. Personally, it reminds me when I was younger and how much I loved when my mother would roast the beans, and the entire house would smell like coffee!”
It takes Cafe Haiti three to four months to receive fresh new batches of coffee beans from its source. Elda says her supplier works with Haitian farmers who prepare the coffee beans for shipment.
“That assures the customer that this is good coffee,” she notes. “I know where the coffee comes from and how it’s made.”
Over a decade since arriving in Iceland, Elda hopes to expand her business into mainland Europe. In part because she loves the product and in part because a better representation of her West Indian homeland is always in the forefront of her mind. When our conversation shifted towards the island nation and why its many resources — like its coffee — remain a best-kept secret to the rest of the world. Elda blames the media and its biased portrayal of the island.
“Haiti gets a bad rap,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but we have good stuff. The press shows destitute children on the streets, hungry and homeless people. They pick the worst places to showcase to the world, but we have beautiful places too. There’s the citadel in Cap-Haitien. The beaches in South Haiti are stunning. Our country is beautiful and has a lot to offer. We have good cacao. We have good chocolate. North Haiti has yuca that’s really good for your health. They make cassava bread with honey and coconut. Fresh mangos and fresh coconuts!”
“I feel like, with Facebook and Instagram, the younger generation is doing a good job with showcasing what Haiti really is like,” she says. “They’re posting all these beautiful pictures of themselves at the beach, eating fresh fruits, fried fish and lobster. That’s the Haiti I remember as a teen.”
Some patrons who visit Cafe Haiti expect Haitian meals but are left disappointed when they check the menu and see sandwiches and soup. Traditional Haitian food like griyo (fried pork), diri kole ak pwa (red beans and rice) banan peze (fried plantains) are nowhere to be found. It’s a shame, to be sure, but as Elda explains, those ingredients are hard to come by in Iceland.
“Where am I going to find plantains in Iceland?” she laughs. With a little research, she discovered that the Agricultural University of Iceland does grow bananas in greenhouses powered by geothermal energy. They’re not for sale, though.
“We’re not back in Haiti,” Elda goes on. “Where am I going to find an endless supply of pig meat? So I make meals Icelanders are familiar with but with a Haitian twist so that everyone’s satisfied. You adjust to the country’s food culture. I was able to come with the coffee beans, but my goodness I couldn’t come with pig meat in my luggage!”
Elda wrapped up our conversation to set up a book reading/autograph signing, but she asked me to stay and gave me more coffee to sip on. I moved to a table in the back of the restaurant and watched 50 Icelanders fill Cafe Haiti. They spoke Icelandic, and I had no clue what they were saying. Still, I ended up staying there until their 6 pm closing, with Elda offering me free leftover wine from the book reading as she swept and mopped the floors of her restaurant.
“Stay! Have some wine! Have some coffee!”
I did and we bonded like two old friends. The only Haitian women on a subarctic island filled with white people. It felt great speaking my native language in a foreign land. Sipping coffee. Laughing. It made me feel connected.