“It is cutlery, yes. But it’s also culture, it’s heritage and it’s history,” Thierry Moysset - CEO Forge de Laguiole
This has been an interesting excursion that has corrected me on a number of assumptions that I have made all my life. Well all the life I have spent since recognising a laguiole knife. It all began with my friend Faye, pointing out, when I mentioned the cigale on Clare's laguiole knife in my piece on our Bastille Day lunch. She corrected me, telling me that it was a bee. But is it?
When I was a working woman, my computer's screen saver carried the words 'Never Assume'. They flashed across the screen many times a day and yet I continued to assume. I still do. In all manner of ways. My assumption re the knife was that the little creature that decorated each knife where the blade joined the handle was a cicada. I now don't know why I assumed that. Maybe when I was first conscious of these knives I was in Provence where everything insect like on things is a cicada. Anyway I am definitely wrong about the cicada. But the bee? Not so sure.
Most people do refer to it as a bee, the legend being that Napoleon, whose dynastic symbol was the bee, granted it as a symbol for the knife in honour of the soldiers who suffered for the country in his many wars. But this cannot be, as the bee did not appear on the knives until after WW2. A surprise in itself is it not? The other theory is that it is a fly. Why a fly? Well one reason is that historically speaking one function of the original knife was to puncture cows suffering from bloat - around which would swarm the flies. The other is technical:
"Technically, "la mouche" (the fly) is the end of the backspring, which sits over the rotating part of the blade." Wikipedia
So maybe we are all wrong. But there is more - rotating? So to history.
The original knife was a different shape - this is an example of one of the earliest. It was designed in 1829 by Jean-Pierre Calmal who lived in the Aubrac region in the Massif-Centrale near the town of Thiers and the village of Laguiole. Here is a bit of technical language, that frankly I don't quite understand but it explains, I think, why it was unique.
"The Calmels laguiole droit had a 'half-lock' on the blade where a small projection on the end of the backspring (mouche) exerts pressure on a corresponding indent in the heel of blade when the knife is open"
Around 1860 the design of the Catalan navaja, and shown here which was brought by the shepherds and cattle drivers who moved in and out of France and Spain, was amalgamated with the laguiole knife creating the classic folding knife. For yes, the classic is a sort of penknife - not a cheese knife or a steak knife. The handle has kept that sinuous shape though, and, of course, today all manner of other knives and implements are made with the name, in a similar style - always with the little insect, whatever it might be, on the join of the handle and the blade. Around 1860 corkscrews were added to some as well.
There are another couple of things that appear on 'authentic' laguiole knives as well. The first is the Shepherd's Cross or rosary which is shown here - some small pins arranged around one of the main pins on the handle in the shape of a cross. Legend has it that it represented the shepherds' need for a prayer as they crossed the mountains. Once again, though, Wikipedia pours cold water on this:
"A 'Shepherd's Cross' consisting of 6-8 inlaid metal pins forming a cross can be found on the handle of some laguioles. It is a myth that this embellishment is a reference to a legend of Catholic shepherds in need of a cross for prayer during their seasonal migrations between the mountains and the plains. The cross can be found in the knives not earlier than the 1950s and is a mere decoration."
So maybe not 'authentic' then. However, the other thing is - an individual number engraved at the blade's hilt.
Here's the big thing though and the biggest surprise for me. There really is no single 'authentic' manufacturer of the laguiole knife. It doesn't have a DOC or similar, it is merely the description of a type of knife, and, as we all know you can now get all manner of laguiole implements, all with the name laguoile on them - like my own salad servers shown here. And the cheese knife. Now these are probably a sort of 'authentic' Laguiole product - in that they are indeed 100% made in France. I suspect the knife may be mass-produced somewhere, whereas the salad servers - a gift from my almost daughter-in-law have an 'authenticity' label on the back of the case, and a name of a maker - the André Verdier brand - which is made in a small factory in the area. There is a wonderful video on their website showing the craftsmen at work. All very 'real'. Antique even.
However, I also have this set of three knives, which cost a mere $18.00. I'm not sure where I bought them, but yes, they are made in China - they say the handles are ivory - which makes me feel very bad. A genuine 'authentic' knife will cost you hundreds of dollars. Well:
"There are about 109 production steps for a one-piece laguiole (single blade), about 166 for a two-piece one (blade and one other tool), and about 216 for a three-piece model (blade and two tools - corkscrew and awl)." Wikipedia
And if those steps are all made by hand, then you can understand why the knife would cost hundreds of dollars.
A final word about the village of Laguiole itself. The villagers became so enraged about the fact that anyone could use the name Laguiole that they brought a court case to dispute its use. They lost, which enraged them even more with them marching to Paris demanding assistance from the President of the time. Also unsuccessful I believe.
However the mayor, in 1987, somehow managed to have a company formed - Forge de Laguiole - and a beautiful factory designed by no less than Philippe Starck was built just outside to create and make artisan made knives. A website called Gear Patrol visited in 2020 and describes the process in detail. Starck himself designed some of the knives - these are all metal - but craftsmen make the 'real' knives - well the Starck ones too I guess.
I have no idea who financed all of this. Maybe the government did it to shut them up, although the Brothers Coste were mentioned - local successful businessmen. The article in Gear Patrol does not mention that the factory is this massive modern thing, and quotes the CEO Thierry Moysset as saying:
“Modernism has not yet invaded this part of the country, and changed the way we do things, and live.”
Which is a little bit strange considering how modern the factory is. But then, maybe I have two completely separate entities mixed up. It's intriguing. But it does look as if the wheel has come full circle.
If you do have one or some of these knives you might like to check, or then again maybe not, how 'authentic' yours is.