Thursday, July 9, 2009

With which knife do you cut the cheese?

Up until last summer, in my mind, there were only two kinds of knives: the cheap kind you buy at Rossmann or Ikea for between 2 and 6 Euros, cursing a week later as you try to saw through a tomato because they have already become dull; and the pop art Swiss Army knives my brothers got every other year for Christmas, having lost their last one in the meantime. My sister and I never got one of those pocket knives, although I'm not sure we would have wanted one. Still, it's funny that my parents were West Coast and so hippie and yet so amazingly traditional with their gender rolls. My sister and I had to clean, do the dishes, slave away at a hot stove (ok, so maybe that one is bit exaggerated...) while all my brothers had to do is take out the trash and rake the leaves in the yard. Since we only ever lived in Arizona or California and there never WERE any leaves in the yard, their daily chores always took all of five seconds. But I digress, distracted, as usual, by my bitterness. The subject of this post is, after all, not about my questionable upbringing but rather this: Knives and what I think of them.

As I was saying, last summer something changed my perception about knives forever. What happened is this: I went to France. Jasper and Mia and I (and Baby Li, still in the womb for another two months)went to Les Landes on the Atlantic coast to stay together with friends at their parent's house in Contis Plage. Although more or less completely made for tourists, Contis Plage has a totally relaxed feel with great cafe/restaurants and an unhurried atmosphere. If everyone hadn't been speaking French or we hadn't eaten such kick-ass croissants every morning for breakfast, I would have sworn I was in California.

After about a week of surf and sun we went to visit an old friend of Jasper's, a German woman named Steffi married to a Frenchmen named Pierre (duh...), who live in a tiny village about an hours drive from Bordeaux. They are both country vets and their house is just about the most gorgeous place I have ever seen: an 18th century old Mill that they have largely restored themselves. I have never really had the desire to own a house since I am more a fan of city/apartment living, but for this place I would gladly make an exception.

Besides the lovely place and the lovely company, what struck me most was how gorgeously food was celebrated. When we arrived from Bordeaux at between 7 or 8 p.m. they greeted us with a Pate, homemade by Pierre's mother. The pate was so wonderfully sinful, pink in the middle, melting in your mouth the moment it met your tongue. Worried that we might find it politically incorrect, Steffi mentioned that the geese had had a good life and that it was only for six weeks before Christmas that they gorged them with food and, a local farmer had told her, the geese lined up when they came each day, eager to be stuffed.

But, again, I digress. The point of this post is not about pate and whether or not it is wrong. The topic is knives and, since it is, let's start with Opinel since they are the company that opened my mind. Opinel is a French maker of knives, including a range of pocket knives that look like this:

I've since heard that French boys are often given these pocket knives just as my brothers were given a Swiss Army knife. Since Steffi and Pierre loved to celebrate food, they also celebrated all the trappings around them. Each family member (they have three children)had their own Opinel knife which was set next to their plate at both lunch and dinner (breakfast is not much of a meal in France.) I loved these knives, with their birch or olive wood handles, one even shaped like a whale for the youngest boy. Steffi took us to a market on the weekend and we bought one for ourselves.

For my husband's birthday in October, I decided I wanted to get him a full set of Opinel table knives. Th
ey use many different kinds of wood to make them, the price ranging accordingly. I fell most in love with the olive wood handle, with it warm, light tone, smooth surface and dark curving veins. In order to buy the knives I went to this shop on Bergmannstrasse.

Holzapfel, a knife speciality shop. I had seen the shop before since it's in the neighborhood but, because of the Japanese-like sign, had always assumed it had something to do with martial arts. Indeed, Japanese swords are available for sale there, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. They also have chef knives for both the professional, the hobbyist and the hopeless amateur; kitchen knives; handcrafted pocketknives that are so beautiful that they are closer to a work of art than a cutting instrument; axes and scissors. The staff is also knowledgeable and incredibly helpful and friendly, something that is definitely not a given in Berlin where the concept of "service" is rarely understood. They also offer smithy courses where they teach you how to make a knife of your very own.

Thanks to Opinel and Holzapfel, I now sees knives not only as useful tools, but objects of sometimes incredible, design, artistry and elega
nce. As a small side note, I did end up ordering the knives online from Opinel since Holzapfel didn't have the ones I had set my heart on. For some reason, when ordering them, I typed in the zip code for California instead of the one for Berlin. I wrote them an e-mail immediately to tell them of my mistake and got a response a day later from Monsieur Opinel himself. Wow, is all I can say.

Knives= 2 good 2 be 4-gotten ;)

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