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.
In the 1970s, however, as the French began to rediscover the foods and other products of the real French countryside, it occurred to the elders of the Aubrac that perhaps their once-famous industry could be revived. Panels and associations were formed and in 1985, the town's first new knife-making atelier opened.
Today, there are said to be as many as 90 ateliers and shops assembling and selling Laguioles in the region, and the knives are sold all over the town and in nearby places in amazing variety. There's even an Academie du Couteau de Laguiole, based in Paris, which disseminates information about the knives, lobbies to uphold their quality and image and offers members specially designed examples. (The Academie's president, Jacques Dereux, displays a fine selection of Laguioles at his Parisian boutique, Tant Qu'il y Aura des Hommes.)
Modern Laguioles aren't always what they seem, however. Knife making may be thriving again in Laguiole, but only one atelier manufactures and assembles every part of the knives; the rest use blades and other components from Thiers, another knife-making town near Clermont-Ferrand, or even from as far away as Mauritius or Pakistan. The exception is Societe Laguiole, whose factory a few miles out of town is an incongruously contemporary building created by noted French designer Philippe Starck, with a huge metallic knife blade, 59 feet tall, protruding through the roof like an inverted rudder. Here, a superb collection of knives (including several updated models designed by Starck and others) is on display--while in individual workshops in the back, steel is forged, bees are etched and filed by hand, blades are polished in vats of water filled with one-inch ceramic rods that act as abrasives, handles are attached and so on.
At first, the Societe Laguiole building may seem like a gimmick--like one of those roadside hot-dog stands shaped like a wiener and bun. But it expresses a key point in the firm's philosophy: "We didn't want to be a sort of museum, just reproducing traditional models of the Laguiole knife," says Gerard Boissins, the Societe's director. "We wanted to make it live, to develop it and bring it into the next century." To this end, they asked Starck to design both the building and a Laguiole knife. "We wanted to put ourselves a bit outside the tradition in Laguiole, as a way of helping that tradition to live on."
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The Laguiole Edge
Getting there: The nearest big city to Laguiole, Clermont-Ferrand, is about a four-hour drive south of Paris; there are also several flights a day from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. From there, Laguiole is about a three-hour drive, via Issoire and St-Flour. It is also possible to reach Laguiole by driving north from Toulouse (also served by regular air service from Paris), through Albi and Rodez, a trip of about 3 1/2 hours.
Where to stay and eat: Hotel Auguy, Allee de l'Amicale, Laguiole. A functional hotel on the main street; sometimes noisy, but otherwise pleasant. The dining room is quite good, serving hearty local fare (trout with bacon, hare with wild mushrooms and juniper, grilled sausage with aligot , a high-calorie puree of potatoes and cheese). Rates: $40-$60; dinner for two, food only, $30-$120; telephone 011-33-6544-3111.
Michel Bras, Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole. A stunning new contemporary-style establishment built of basalt, granite and glass and jutting out of a hillside just outside of town. The menu is exotic, offering such original creations as tuna belly with onions, bread sauce and anchovies; sole with bacon, wild mushrooms and nightshade leaves and lamb sweetbreads with sumac and cow-parsnip seeds. Dinner for two, food only, $80-$300. There are 15 rooms in the hotel here; doubles $190-$315; tel. 011-33-6544-3224, fax 011-33-6548-4702 for both hoteland restaurant.
Buying knives: Prices for Laguiole knives vary greatly, depending on size, design and materials, as well as basic quality. A set of six steak knives might cost between $60 and $450 (with a wood case included for the more expensive knives); standard-size pocketknives might be had for as little as $40 or as much as $300. Some of the best and some of the most expensive Laguioles are those made by Societe Laguiole, which has two locations--an atelier and showroom, Route de l'Aubrac, local telephone 6548-4334; and a boutique, Allee de l'Amicale, tel. 6544-3085.
Other Lanuiole knife shops: Coutellerie Cros, Allee de l'Amicale; a very classy shop, handsomely paneled in rich, brown wood, with a modest display of top-rank knives; tel. 6551-5070.
La Coutelier de Laguiole, Place de la Patte d'Oie; a large shop with a huge selection in town, not just of Laguiole's but of other knives, kitchen utensils, etc.; tel. 6544-3455.
Le Couteau de Laguiole, Place du Nouveau Foirail; a serious shop, not set up for touristic browsing; tel. 6544-3949.
La Maison du Laguiole, Place de la Patte d'Oie; two rooms of good-quality merchandise, attractively displayed. Some shops are open seven days a week, though many are closed on Sundays; tel. 6548-4422.
In Paris: Tant Qu'il y Aura des Hommes, 23-25 Rue du Cherche-Midi; tel. 4548-4817.)