Culinary History (Part 15): European Table Knives

The practice of carrying your own knife around to use as both weapon and eating utensil began to disappear in the 1600’s.  First, knives started to be laid out on the table, along with forks (which were new).  Cases of identical knives were being sold, instead of personal, individual ones.

Second, knives stopped being sharp, thus taking power away from them physically, not just personally.  The purpose of a knife is to cut, and for a civilization to deliberately make knives blunter is because of extreme politeness (or passive-aggressiveness).


As the story goes, in 1637 Cardinal Richelieu (Louis XIII’s chief advisor) saw a dinner guest using the tip of a double-edged knife to pick his teeth.  The cardinal was horrified, and ordered all his own knives to be blunted.  It’s not known whether he was horrified at the guest’s manners, or the danger.  In 1669, Louis XIV forbade French cutlers to make pointed dinner-knives.  They used to be sharpened on both sides (like a dagger), but now this changed.

At this time, culture was undergoing some dramatic changes.  The Catholic Church was no longer as unified as it had been, and the chivalric codes of behaviour were long gone.  Things that were once normal now disgusted people – drinking soup straight from the bowl; using the fingers to take meat from a common dish; using a single, sharp knife to cut everything.  Table manners and table utensils were changing, and the Europeans, like the Chinese, began to distrust sharp knives at table.  But unlike the Chinese, they kept them at the table, blunted and less threatening.

In France, knives were often kept off the table in general (except for certain tasks such as peeling/cutting fruit, which personal knives were still used for as always).

But in England, knives stayed on the table and became blunter.  Table knives from the 1500’s and 1600’s look like miniature kitchen knives, with various blade shapes, from dagger-like to pen-knife, even scimitar-like.  The blade could be double-edged or single-edged.

Knives from the 1700’s are completely different.  The blade often curves gently to the right, ending in a rounded tip.

The way to hold a knife also changed.  Sharp knives were held with the whole hand, in a stabbing pose.  Blunt knives were held like we do now – with the index finger along the spine, and the palm wrapped around the handle.

The blunting of table knives, and the consequent new way to hold them, is why many people have bad knife skills in the kitchen. Holding a kitchen knife like that is actually dangerous – you should strongly grip the bottom of the blade between thumb and forefinger.

So the English in the 1700’s sat at table with their pretty, useless little table knives, trying to avoid any gesture that could suggest violence.  By the late 1700’s, the Sheffield table knives were really just about display – in high London society, people laid them out on the table to show off the host’s taste and wealth.  They were beautiful objects, but that was about it.

Carrying a knife with you was very bad manners, now.  In 1769, an Italian man called Joseph Baretti was charged for stabbing a man in self-defence in London, with a small folding fruit-knife.  Baretti defended himself by saying that on the Continent, it was normal to carry a sharp knife around for cutting fruit and sweetmeats.  A century ago, he wouldn’t have had to explain this.

The Sheffield cutlers used carbon steel for table knives, which was a better metal for forging than previous metals used.  But for taste, it was dreadful.  Non-stainless steel reacts badly with acid, turning black, and giving a gross metallic taste/aftertaste to the food. This is why even today, the French consider it bad manners to cut salad leaves – vinaigrette in particular reacted badly.

And fish.  For centuries, people had eaten fish with lemon – but until stainless steel was invented in the 1920’s, lemony fish would be ruined if you ate it with a knife.  In the 1800’s, silver fish knives were invented – silver is non-corrosive and doesn’t react with lemon juice.  Of course only the rich could afford them.  They had a scalloped shape, originally to distinguish them in the cutlery drawer, and because fish was soft and didn’t need strong/sharp cutting.  If you didn’t have silver fish knives, then you’d use two forks, or a fork & piece of bread – or put up with the gross taste.

Stainless steel is also called inox steel, or non-rusting steel.  It is a metal alloy with a high chromium content.  What happens is that the chromium forms an invisible layer of chromium oxide when exposed to the air.  This stops the knives from rusting, and keeps them lustrous.

In 1908, Friedrich Krupp built a 366-tonne yacht called Germania with a chrome steel hull.  Before WW1, Harry Brearley (of Thomas Firth and Sons, in Sheffield) was trying to find a metal for gun barrels that wouldn’t corrode.  This led to stainless steel cutlery.

At first, stainless steel was hard to work in all except the simplest of cutlery patterns.  But WW2’s industrial innovations meant that stainless steel knives could now be made cheaply and efficiently, in the shapes people wanted.

3

I finally worked out a tail floof that I’m happy with! It took some experimenting with how much hair to include in each tassel, how many to use and where to put them. Then I gave it a haircut and trimmed it to shape.

I was working this out for a commission that I’ll start on shortly. Afterwards I may finish this tail and sell it, though it may be more useful to me to keep this one on hand for reference.