Carbon steel and macho appeal
Old cutlery gives taste to dining, says John Windsor
Saturday 04 January 1997
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).
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