Carbon steel and macho appeal

Old cutlery gives taste to dining, says John Windsor

Wielding a knife is one of the few masculine pleasures left. But dissecting grilled bacon or pushing peas with a blunt table knife is not the greatest of thrills.

The answer is to equip your table with antique cutlery. You only have to look at the paintings of Breughel or Bosch, to see the knives hanging from men's belts with a spoon tucked beside them and appreciate that, in more robust times, the knives used to pick up cooked meat were also used for self defence.

Why not eat with such period pieces? After all, if your dining table and chairs are antique, and maybe even your crockery, why be satisfied with anachronistic 20th-century EPNS cutlery?

There are, of course, disadvantages. For a start, antique blades made of carbon steel are considered unhygienic. They certainly look it - blackened by citrus fruit, potatoes or vinegar. Some complain that they taint food with a bitter taste.

But anyone hankering after the role of an 18th-century trencherman will put up with such discomfort, and will relish that other characteristic of old carbon blades: cutting edges misshapen by pounding in an old-fashioned knife sharpener, a hand-cranked wooden drum containing leather flaps, filled with abrasive emery powder.

Confronted by a big private collection of knives, spoons and forks dating back to the Middle Ages, I pick up the most flamboyant-looking table knife, an early-18th-century "scimitar" with spatula blade-tip and silver pistol-grip handle.

"Men do like these," says Bill Brown, Britain's foremost collector. "It's a great, swaggering shape. Terribly elegant."

I thrust the scimitar at a cheese and chutney sandwich. Heavy. It's not as comfortable as I had anticipated. And the long blade makes cutting feel remote. But it's a great knife to brandish in convivial company.

The scimitar evolved during the period 1700-1730, an interesting watershed in knife design. Before then, people carried their own cutlery. At a 17th- century inn, you would have either used your own or gone hungry. Only royalty and the very rich supplied cutlery to their guests.

The big scimitars kept in wooden canteens in the dining halls of the well-to-do were stretched versions of smaller, bring-your-own knives. "The 18th century was a period of long knives, big eating and big men," says Mr Brown.

There is a tale that Cardinal Richelieu, having witnessed a fatal stabbing at dinner, ordered the sharp points of knives used at table to be cut off. Soon afterwards, French cutlers began making the tips rounded, then spatulate - just the job for peas and gravy.

The scimitar does seem to have been a much-loved design, for cartoonists showed it in pictures that they drew up to the end of the 1700s and beyond, half-a-century after a more demure French design had usurped it. Mr Brown brings out a Gilray cartoon of 1798, showing John Bull devouring warships proffered by Nelson and his admirals. Gnawing at a ship, he brandishes a scimitar knife. Cartoonists are notorious for being out of date. You can even spot scimitar knives at feasts in The Beano.

You could probably buy a scimitar and fork from a dealer for around pounds 100- pounds 120, but you are unlikely to find a whole table service unless you pay between pounds 3,000 and pounds 5,000 for a merchant's showy black fish-skin "standing" box with knives and forks upright in velvet-lined slots. Big houses did sometimes commission hundreds of pieces. Keep your eyes open at country house sales and flea markets.

Forks? Their use at dinner was considered effeminate until about 1700. Before that, they were used mainly by the carver to skewer meat. Even in the early 18th century, when their two prongs became curved, they were still too far apart to pick up peas.

There were three prongs by the mid-18th century and four by the 19th. But, to confuse pedantic historians, Mr Brown can show you 16th-century bronze forks with four prongs, used in Italy.

If you plan to use authentic two-pronged forks, be warned. Mr Brown recalls a recent "18th-century" dinner party where there was "blood all over the table. Someone had stuck a two-pronged fork right through his lip."

To avoid injury, pair your scimitars with 19th-century silver flatware forks (four-pronged). You will in any case have difficulty finding forks that match because, in the days of the scimitar, half the forks were matched with spoons, not knives.

Besides impaling themselves, fashionable buyers of old cutlery commonly commit the crime of putting it in the dishwasher. The hot water bursts the knives' hollow cast or stamped silver handles, melting the resin inside. The blackened carbon blade falls out of the handle.

How to replace such knife blades in stainless steel?. The trouble is, Mr Brown says, "No one forges knife blades by hand any more, so it's difficult to get blades made the right shape."

He shows me a 1730 silver pistol grip wrongly fitted with a straight 19th-century blade. Dating cutlery is a bit of a tangle, with styles overlapping and forks being paired first with steel knives, then with silver spoons. But there are four "prime" designs, shown here. First, the mid-17th century cartridge handle: a straight, parallel-edged blade with a point like a Roman short sword; then the scimitar; then the French invader, 1775-1800: a spear-point blade with handle of matching shape. Later, between 1800 and 1820, the broad blade returns, this time parallel-sided - a larger version of our familiar table knife.

After 1930, says Mr Brown, "the picture gets confused."

If you cannot face the scimitar, you can still pick up fine Victorian canteens of silver cutlery, with silver or ivory handles, for less than pounds 1,000.

`8,000 Years of Cutlery from the Bill Brown Collection', City Museum and Mappin Art Gallery, Weston Park, Sheffield, to 30 April: Wed-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, 11am-5pm. Bill Brown (0181-650 3933).

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Money is slipping through our fingers: the UK is falling behind other countries in the amount we put away

How to save money: UK is crashing down the European league table for putting money away

The UK has slipped to 11th in the latest European league table of savers. Rob Griffin checks out the best options

Energy firms found guilty of bad practice could have licences revoked under Labour government

Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, says a Labour government would create a new energy regulator

A student's guide to financial survival: You don't have to drown in debt at university

Fresh from A-level delight, the moment does not have to be soured by students resigning themselves to thousands of pounds worth of debt in three years' time. Rob Griffin sees how to pass the university challenge

'Dismal' eurozone data sparks concerns

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi is under pressure to launch promised stimulus before the EU slides further
Love but not marriage: property is one area where cohabiting couples are in danger of losing out

How couples can protect their financial interests when cohabiting

People who simply live together cannot assume they have the same rights to each other's assets as spouses or civil partners. Michelle McGagh sees how they can protect their financial interests

India could be jewel in the crown for investors

With a new government and an ambitious prime minister, the country offers the prospect of strong returns. But there may be hiccups ahead, warns Simon Read

Child Maintenance Service to replace Child Support Agency - but is it better?

Reforms to the vexed question of child support payments by absent parents mean extra charges for both sides. Neasa Macerlean reports

Barclays's new life insurance heralds a revolution on the high street

The new product marks a shift towards 'clear, straightforward and standardised' banking products, says Simon Read

How to protect your assets if the stock markets begin to head south again

Are you worried about your portfolio? Nick Paler asks fund managers and investment insiders for advice
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Law Costs

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

    Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

    DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

    £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

    Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution