Cutting edge

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The Independent Culture
Look closely at David's The Death of Marat (above) and you will see, lying beside the murdered revolutionary, a knife that looks like a typical Sabatier. In fact it couldn't have been, because Bonnet Sabatier only began to manufacture knives in 1840 - about 50 years too late for David. The familiarity arises because Sabatier based his knife on the classic French design.

Until the early Eighties, the knife rack of any serious cook would boast a batterie of razor-sharp Sabatiers. But then the brand lost its reputation and its edge: Bonnet Sabatier had two sons, one of whom had seven daughters, and the other, two. Each of these women married, and trouble began as couples quarrelled about the rights to the name. Unfortunately the old man had not registered the company properly, and they all began making knives under the name of Sabatier, to hugely different standards. Today, other brands reign supreme, particularly those from Germany, although a handful of companies, such as Sabatier Perrier and K Sabatier, still produce knives that are every bit as good as their German competitors. Others are hardly worth the cheap aluminium used to make them.

The quality of a knife is dependent on the craftsmanship and materials used in making it. It is easy enough to handle a kitchen knife and tell, from its finish and balance, how well it has been made, but the customer cannot assess the quality of the steel (we go into Rockwell units here: the degree to which the steel has been hardened), or judge how easily it will sharpen, or how resistant it will be to corrosion and staining.

Label snobbery is not only forgivable, it is advisable: by selecting a decent brand you guarantee a sound investment. But while knife companies urge you to buy an entire range, I advise shopping across the brands.

Select knives that suit the way you cook, to make up a collection that is right for you. Four essentials are a three-to-four-inch paring knife, and six-, eight- and ten-inch chopping knives (also called chef's knives) which can be used for boning and filleting if necessary. Anyone who has chased a tomato around a plate knows that a serrated knife saves on plasters. A Japanese square-bladed chopper also deserves a mention as an all-rounder. The bread knife, carving knife and sharpening steel are no doubt already members of your menage.

The German companies Wusthof Trident and JA Henckels go back a long way, and it would be hard to say which is superior. Wusthof advertise that each knife is hand-forged from a single piece of steel. JA Henckels sell their knives on the strength of the fact that different steel is used for different parts. Contrasting knives, contrasting sales pitch. The top ranges are not cheap: a four-inch Wusthof Trident paring knife in the "Grand Prix" series costs pounds 21.95; a ten-inch cook's knife pounds 57.

Granton, the established British knife company, last year entered the race with a range called Le Chef. In keeping with the name, a real chef designed them. Mark Gregory has already found success with his line in groovy kitchen gear; if you have wondered where Gary Rhodes gets his racetrack print trousers, now you know.

Looking for a new challenge, Gregory had the idea of producing a British range to compete with the Continentals. It was fortuitous that early into developing the knives he met Peter Kirby of Granton, whose family has been in business since 1601. They are perhaps best known for their scallop- edged carving knife.

Together the two started to develop a unique British style of knife, first inserting a groove along the blade. The idea derived from the design of bayonets for the British army, and from hunting knives which have an "air groove" - to reduce suction. Unappetising, but true.

It is also true that manufacturers of good kitchen knives dabble in other useful blades such as machetes, sabres, and scalpels - in fact this could be seen as a recommendation. The "air groove" is designed to break up the surface tension between the food and the blade so the food doesn't stick to the knife.

When I first picked up a Le Chef knife I was disappointed that it lacked the reassuring heaviness of German knives. But feedback from within the industry had pointed to a growing problem of repetitive strain injury (RSI), not to mention calluses. Thus the unprepossessing, lightweight, polypropylene handle. RSI is not really a domestic issue, but the low cost makes Le Chef tempting and the paring knife (pounds 2.85) and ten-inch cook's knife (pounds 26.75) do seem to do their jobs well.

Once you have bought your knives, look after them. First off, to debunk a myth: you won't blunt them if you store them on a magnetic strip. Recent thinking is that the wooden blocks are not terribly hygienic. And never store knives loose in a drawer: this is dangerous.

As for the rapid "air sharpening" skills beloved of your father and the local butcher, leave them to the professionals. To sharpen a knife, hold a steel by the handle and place the tip on the work surface. Now run the length of the blade at a 20-degree angle across the steel, then do it on the other side. You can do this as slowly as you like, but apply considerable pressure.

This is a skill to master during an evening of self-improvement. Alternatively, ask your butcher nicely

Stockists

JA Henckels 01428-658888. Wusthof Trident 01782-825835. Le Chef knives: mail order 0181-874 0011. Sabatier Perrier: P Denny & Co., 39 Old Compton Street, W1 (0171-437 1654); E Russian and Sons, Edward House, Tenter Street, Rotherham, Yorkshire (01709-365005)

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