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).
30 August 2014 12:00 AM
The UK has slipped to 11th in the latest European league table of savers. Rob Griffin checks out the best options
22 August 2014 10:30 PM
Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, says a Labour government would create a new energy regulator
22 August 2014 10:30 PM
16 August 2014 12:00 AM
16 August 2014 12:00 AM
08 August 2014 11:30 PM
08 August 2014 11:30 PM
01 August 2014 07:30 PM
The new product marks a shift towards 'clear, straightforward and standardised' banking products, says Simon Read
01 August 2014 07:30 PM
Buyers beware of new-build home headaches
Five Questions: Changes to car tax discs
Bargain Hunter: There's one day left to book a bargain flight with Air Asia
A student's guide to financial survival: You don't have to drown in debt at university
How to save money: UK is crashing down the European league table for putting money away
- 2 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 3 Lady al-Qa’ida: On the trail of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the world’s most wanted prisoner
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 It's not just the savagery of Isis that is shocking – its weaponry is too
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
- < Previous
- Next >
iJobs Money & Business
Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...
£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...
£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...
£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...
Day In a Page
A first-floor flat with two bedrooms, a spacious reception room and communal grounds in a leafy part of London
A three-bedroom flat with a spacious rootop terrace and balcony, accessed from a private gated courtyard
A Grade II-listed pile with six bedrooms, stables and 39 acres of grounds in Standlake
A two-bedroom flat with boutique hotel-style interiors, close to the foodie haunt of West End Lane
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village
A secluded seven-bedroom detached house with large private garden, £490,000
A three-bedroom cottage overlooking Sarratt village green with open fires and solid oak floors
A three-bedroom maisonette flat in a Grade I-listed, Georgian townhouse in a sought-after location
A one-bedroom apartment located within a private gated development, north of Turnham Green
Look forward to a brighter future at two-bedroom Sunny Cottages, ideal for Londoners looking to downsize
A three-bedroom red-brick cottage with outbuildings and pretty gardens, £200,000
This three-bedroom flat within a former textile factory spans the corner of the fourth floor and has a balcony