On a steamy night last Thursday Prufrock of London invited us to novelist Piers Alexander’s launch of The Bitter Trade; a romper of a book set in 17th Century England. The title refers to the protagonist’s lurch into the dark, grimy world of London’s coffee trade at the time after his first experience of the “spicy sting” of the “black dust”.
Usual visits to bright and breezy Prufrock don’t feature a stomping, jigging dance troupe in historical garb, FYI. We enjoyed a rather enthusiastic performance from the Sealed Knot society, featuring retellings of ribald rhymes about naughty wenches, the “legends” surrounding dirty coffee houses and the “jiggery-pokery” that went on within.
Dr. Matthew Green of Coffeehouse Tour fame provided a brief history of the state of affairs in London coffeehouses at the time; the exchange of gossip or news as currency and the sobering up of government after caffeine arrived in London. Summary: previously everyone was mildly drunk all day because water was nasty, beer was not; coffeehouses were where people got a buzz on and consequently actually got things done.
During an intermission (drinks all round) Jem Challender, Training Director at Prufrock, boiled up some “cowboy coffee” to show the crowd approximately how coffee was brewed in the 17th Century, made using Square Mile Coffee Roaster‘s Ethiopia Reko in a whopper of a jug. An enormous modified cupping by any other name, we were promised by Dr. Green that if this was 1688 London it would taste like soot and oil, rather than the gentle watermelon notes of our brew. (We do enjoy imagining “soot and oil” written on a bag sticker, however.)
Lastly, Piers took the stage and led us through a very exciting passage from his book, featuring boils and an unfortunate lancing. Lots of groans, bit of wincing. Lancing aside, it’s an entertaining read, full of thievery, seedy coffee tradesmen and florid olde phrases. For those who'd like to drink in a rich, bitter history alongside their cup, Alexander's book is the perfect tome to bring with you to the coffeeshop—or round the pub—and over which to start an awkward conversation with the stranger next to you.