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A Knife Place to Visit : Knife-making has been raised to an art in the off-the-beaten-track town of Laguiole : Shopping: France

March 19, 1995|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews is executive editor of Saveur magazine.

LAGUIOLE, France — My Laguiole steak knives are among the most beautiful objects I own, sleek and elegant, perfectly balanced both visually and in heft.

There are six of them and, being handmade, they betray minute differences from one to the next--but the basic form is the same: The blade, mirror-clear, extends just over four inches out from the handle of each one. On its business end, the blade curves gently to a sort of saber point; heading back toward its bolster, it swoops up a bit on top. Three shallow notches are cut into it just before it disappears into the miter that joins blade and handle together. The miter itself is brass, with a shape that suggests an army boot, its shaft swallowing the blade. The handle is pure white laminated wood, arching back into an elongated pistol grip, and is secured to the tang by three brass rivets. Set into the top of the miter is the small, hand-etched, stylized image of a bee. These steak knives bear about the same resemblance to the usual chophouse hacking tool that a Baccarat goblet bears to a souvenir shop coffee mug.

Laguiole (pronounced lie-OLE) is a town of about 1,300 inhabitants in the mountains of south-central France, about 100 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand and 340 miles south of Paris. It is the capital of the Aubrac region, part of the departement of the Aveyron, and a site famed throughout France for its cattle (a sturdy breed, itself called the Aubrac), its cheese, its sausages (one charcuterie in town , Maison Conquet, has been called the best in France by the prestigious Gault-Millau magazine) and its cutlery--in approximately reverse order.

Laguiole is a pleasant town, its small center composed mostly of gabled four-story buildings with sloping slate roofs and facades of brick or stucco. Its principal public monument is a hulking bronze statue of an Aubrac bull in the center of the large civic parking lot called the Place du Foirail. Knife shops surround this square and line the main street. Some sell Laguiole knives exclusively; others offer everything from Swiss Army knives to the kind of kitchen gadgets you might find at Williams-Sonoma, or even at Pic N' Save.

Nobody comes to Laguiole for Swiss Army knives or melon-ballers, though. It's a hard place to get to, not on the way to or from anything much. You don't visit Laguiole by accident, in other words. You come, almost certainly, for one of two things (if not both): to dine at the renowned Michel Bras restaurant, awarded two stars in the Guide Michelin and famous for its use of unusual mountain herbs, or to buy Laguiole knives at their source. Though these knives are sold elsewhere in France, the biggest and best selection by far is here--and there are so many outlets that comparative shopping is easy.

The Laguiole knife--or simply le Laguiole , as locals tend to call it--exists in numerous variations. Its blade may be made of either stainless or carbon steel. Its handle might be ivory, bone, horn, wood of various kinds, even Plexiglas or Bakelite or, increasingly, a U.S.-made composite called lamina wood. There are two basic designs: the steak knife (ranging in price from $60 to $450 for a set of six) or the original--a fold-up pocketknife, sometimes with an awl and / or a corkscrew included ($40-$300). But there are cheese knives, carving knives, bread knives and other variations available--even forks based on the steak knife design.

The direct ancestor of the modern-day Laguiole was designed in 1829 by Pierre-Jean Calmels, the son of a local innkeeper, who combined elements of local farmers' knives with features of a stocky clasp knife, or navaja , from Spanish Catalonia, apparently introduced to Laguiole either by young local peasants who worked in Catalonia in the winter or by Catalan mule-sellers who drove their beasts to market in the Aubrac.

The original Laguioles were hardly steak knives. Though handsome, they were slender, sometimes clumsy things, meant for farm work. The awl was added to some models in 1840 as a tool for cattle farmers. The corkscrew appeared in 1880, when the sale of bottled wine became popular in France. The bee on the back of the knife is a recent addition. It used to be a fly--apparently in reference to those that buzz around the Aubrac's famous cows--but, as one knife maker put it, a bee is "a nobler thing" (and, he might have added, a more commercially appealing one).

By the mid-19th Century, Calmels and six other artisanal knife makers were producing Laguioles by hand in the town. But increasing industrial sophistication in rural France brought an influx of cheaper, machine-tooled knives from other regions, and Laguiole sales dropped. By the mid-20th Century, all local knife makers had disappeared, and le Laguiole was a thing of the past.

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