If it’s glass you are interested in, not just what goes inside it, Kitengela Glass is the obvious destination for a delightful and educational day trip from Nairobi.
Stepping into the dark and cavernous dome the heat is the first thing that hits you. Through the open door on the other side of the room chains of coloured glass hang from the well-lit shop floor ceiling but in the darkness of the dome, it is impossible not to feel like you’ve stepped into hot, fantastical dimension. Lifting your gaze up you will see a ceiling pin pricked by hundreds of small pieces of glass which give the impression you are standing under a brilliant moonless East African sky. We are in Kitengela Hot Glass and this is quite the sight to behold.
The center of the domed workshop—where the melting, blowing and shaping of the hot glass takes place, extends high into the sky and finishes off with a pointy chimney. Inside, glassblowers in blue overalls move from furnace to workbench in a graceful and coordinated dance across the room, seemingly impervious to the unspeakable heat. They gather molten balls of glass from inside the oven with hollow metal poles and carry the bubbling globules over to their benches where they proceed to blow, shape, carve, spin and stretch the glass, returning it to the ovens to heat it up if it starts to harden. Now and then, Anselm Croze, the owner of the workshop, asks them to do some things a little differently in crisp, unaccented Kiswahili.
“Like scooping out honey with a spoon,” is how Anselm describes the glass making process as we gaze along, mesmerized. He’s right: molten glass does look a lot like honey: gooey, shiny, orange-ish in colour. The similarities stop there though: unlike honey, molten glass, heated to 1150 degrees Celsius, is the last thing you want anywhere near your mouth. Two glassblowers work simultaneously on a piece which is attached to a blow pipe. The first blower blows air in one end of the pipe, causing the glass to expand like bubble gum as the second smooths it all around using wet newspaper. Another blower dangles a ball upside down at the end of a metal pole and stretches it out with a pair of tongs to form the elongated stem of a chandelier piece. The casted glass that will end up in tables, murals and windows is formed by pouring liquid glass into variously shaped molds.
“It’s all tricks. Every object you make requires a whole set of tricks,” explains Anselm, adding, “You can learn until the day you die”. He would know; it’s been more than 27 years since he and a Finnish inventor started this business after an epiphany while in France and an apprenticeship at a studio in Netherlands where he learned the basic tricks to the craft. Over the years, he’s established an equilibrium that involves a combination of one-off pieces such murals and carvings that are purely aesthetic and the more functional pieces that end up on shop shelves, like their glasses.
I figure this is a good time to ask about glasses and whisky. While admitting that he is no expert, Anselm nonetheless tries to respond based on what he does know from others in the glass-making world. Glass, while favoured for its neutrality (materials such as silver or plastic do change the taste to your drink), controls the drinking experience in other ways: from the sense of sight as determined by the colour and clarity of a glass, to that of touch—via the texture and the weight of the glass, to the sense of smell and taste—the shape of the glass funnels the aromas of the whisky towards your nose and influences how the drink falls on your tongue.
“Tasting is about all of the senses.” says Anselm, as way of a conclusion. Indeed.
Personally, when I think of whisky, I think of scenes of drama in theater and film: the antagonist in a soap opera cradles a glass of amber liquid while plotting his revenge in an extended monologue, a character in a crime thriller hides in the shadows, cigar in one hand, whisky glass in the other, an anxious housewife shakily pours herself a glassful out of a pitcher, downing it in frenzied, breathless gulps.
I can’t help but think how diminished these scenes would be if the characters were sipping out of plastic cups.