Spell in a teacup

Ingrid Persaud is entranced by Kiran Akal’s Caribbean blended teas

Akal’s Installation at Art Basel Switzerland. Photograph courtesy Bombay SapphireKiran Akal. Photograph courtesy Bombay SapphirePhotograph by Ingrid Persaud

It’s not every day you meet a real magician, but I met one, and in the most unlikely of places – Valpark Shopping Plaza. You pass this sprawling outdoor mall when heading east out of Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the direction of Piarco Airport. The mall is nice enough, but press deeper, through a narrow passageway, and you might find him hiding in a tiny shop overflowing with crystal and china. He is usually sitting at the back, on a stool, sipping tea – a petite, handsome man in his forties with piercing grey eyes.

He introduces himself: Kiran Akal, born and raised in Trinidad, and now home after years in Ireland, Paris and Miami.

Before I can interview him properly, an exquisite cup is set before me. Tea is poured. It is then I know I am in the presence of magic. This is one of Akal’s new range of blended teas. Barbados Silver has a gentle flavour, the product of leaves picked on the first day or two of the season, balanced by the addition of rosebuds.

Akal’s obsession with tea goes way back, so in discussions over expanding the family boutique, his sister suggested he make something of his passion for tea. He reflected that tea was grown neither in England nor in France, yet these countries had developed blends that spoke to their tastes. Caribbean peoples come from places as far apart as India, China and Africa – many with a natural, historical link to the ritual of tea – so he set out to create blends specifically reminiscent of the Caribbean. After months of research, he found a master blender in London and together they created his teas.

This being the Caribbean, all the herbal teas are based on hibiscus petals. Every tea is sourced directly from estates in India and China. They are shipped to England to be blended, then packed at the Treveni Mandir in the village of Hard Bargain, in south Trinidad. Funds from the tea-packing support the temple’s youth programme, which teaches dance, drama, bhajans, and music.

With seven teas currently in his range, we moved from Barbados Silver to a perfect Tobago Afternoon – without the distractions of milk or sugar. Akal explains that Tobago Afternoon is a reinvention of Earl Grey, toning down the bergamot and using orange-blossom petals to create a delicate, fragrant tea.

The rest of Akal’s specialty teas are no less interesting. There is the robust but smooth Trinidad Breakfast; Bermuda Pink, with the peace and grace of chamomile, rosehip, and rose petals; Antillean Green, a green tea that refreshes and uplifts; Grenadines Purple, which Akal has even used to make an alternative Teatini (a martini made with iced tea), as well as desserts and ices; and the Caribbean Chai, which captures the essence of Caribbean spices in one brew.

In September Akal will join over 100 artisans at Design Caribbean in Santo Domingo, a newly rebranded trade show hosted by the Carib Export Development Agency, to present these “bespoke” teas to regional and international buyers.

For him, blending tea is an artistic statement of the most accessible kind. His enthusiasm is infectious. “I have always drunk tea. I love the story behind it, of a single leaf floating accidentally into an emperor’s cup of hot water. The tea is a statement and I wanted to bring it home. The Caribbean Diaspora is made up of peoples whose culture and DNA speak of tea; those leaves are, as I describe them, the leaves of our history. I have chosen to make each blend a poetic statement and to create the rhyme and metre of the poem through colours, smells and textures that are unique to us.”

 

More on Kiran

Kiran Akal was educated at St Mary’s College, Trinidad, then read medicine in Ireland, but quickly moved into the field of entertainment and design. He planned to study architecture next, but won an opportunity from Unesco that led to work in Paris. Today he makes his living largely in the creative field.

Florida International Design magazine in 2009 named him as one of the most influential creative thinkers in the state of Florida in its annual Power Players List, and the art show Art Basel Miami described him as an “Imaginist”. In 2008, also in Miami, he opened Art Asia, a fair dedicated to presenting contemporary Asian art. In 2009 he spoke on fostering creativity at a Commonwealth Business Forum meeting in Trinidad. He’s a multi-media artist and a composer signed to Warner Music (with the only known copyright awarded to the reworking of a Mozart composition); the underground dance hit “Rex” is his composition.

All his work, he feels, is connected: “The medicine drove the music. The music drove shape and form and colour, all of it drove an appreciation for geometry and space. With this approach my life and my work become inextricable from each other.”

Teas are available at:
Smaks Bespoke Teas, The West Indies Tea Company, Valpark Shopping Plaza, and at the SMAKS Pop Up Tea Boutique, Carlton Savannah Hotel, Port of Spain.
For more information e-mail info@smakstrinidad.com or call (+ 868) 663 3097
You can see a wide range of artisanal products from the region from September 1 – 4 at: Design Caribbean, Hotel El Embajador, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
For more information visit: http://designcaribbean.com or www.facebook.com/DesignCaribbean