Cuisine - - CONTENTS - Photography Camilla Ruther­ford

Thomas Heaton meets a knife­maker con­tin­u­ing an an­cient art form

IT’S BEEN SAID that a Da­m­as­cus steel blade can slice through the bar­rel of a ri­fle. While this may be ur­ban leg­end, such tales have lived through the ages for a rea­son – th­ese blades were seen as razor-sharp, strong and flex­i­ble dur­ing the Cru­sades.

That was a long time ago, of course, but the art of craft­ing Da­m­as­cus steel blades is still alive – alive in what might seem to be the un­like­li­est of spots, far from its Syr­ian roots. In the sleepy Otago town of Omakau a black­smith is toil­ing. He folds layer upon layer of steel, over and over, heat­ing the steel white-hot – ham­mer­ing, fold­ing. In­cor­po­rat­ing dif­fer­ent pieces of metal, the knife takes shape and is sharp­ened. Cleaned off, it is then sub­merged in a so­lu­tion. When it emerges, the blade looks like dis­turbed quick­sil­ver – that’s the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of steel show­ing through.

The man be­hind this blade is Peter Lorimer. His par­tic­u­lar skill set has paid his stipend for about 20 years now – but the ca­reer could be con­sid­ered a beau­ti­ful ac­ci­dent.

“I never worked with my hands,” Lorimer re­calls. “It was just a bit of fun, it wasn’t some­thing I had ever done be­fore.”

His pre­vi­ous ca­reer in IT and tech is now a dis­tant mem­ory. Lorimer’s craft started out of cu­rios­ity and frus­tra­tion. He wanted a good knife, with­out the daunt­ing price point. He picked the brains of a friendly black­smith and the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Presents for fam­ily and friends were first, then re­plac­ing “old faith­ful” for chefs fol­lowed. Now Lorimer is im­port­ing sheets of Aus­trian steel, com­bin­ing it with New Zealand bone, paua and wood. Some of the blades con­tain a piece of his­tory that is unique to its owner and to a time and place, whether that’s old springs from a de­funct New Zealand Rail­way lo­co­mo­tive or wrought iron sal­vaged from the old West­port Wharf.

It’s about cre­at­ing a prod­uct that has its own per­son­al­ity, some­thing that can’t be repli­cated, and for that rea­son his knives are highly sought after in chef cir­cles – his clients in­clude the likes of Al Brown and Peter Gor­don. Lorimer con­tin­ues to take be­spoke re­quests, whether that be for Da­m­as­cus steel dough scrap­ers or hack­saw-like bread knives.

One of his most fa­mous knives, a rounded chef’s knife about 12cm long, is his herb knife. It was a mis­take, he ex­plains: “It cut down into a lit­tle round thing.” But, as fate would have it, “I had a friend in Christchurch who said ‘I have a mate with one arm’.” It was the per­fect mis­take for the on­earmed man, as its rolling ac­tion made it much eas­ier for him to work with.

Peter Gor­don, mean­while, now uses the knife for meat, says Lorimer, as it al­lows him to get into the hardto-reach places. “It’s just a nice lit­tle shape. I saw that some­one had been us­ing it as a for­ag­ing knife.”

The dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple use knives the world over fas­ci­nates him. He refers to Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, a crit­i­cally ac­claimed 1994 Tai­wanese film cen­tred around food. In the open­ing scene, the char­ac­ter of Mr Chu shows speed and pre­ci­sion with a hulk­ing blade that many would cringe at the sight of. A chopped digit wait­ing to hap­pen.

“You see him with this big cleaver and he is slic­ing chill­ies with it. Ev­ery cul­ture has all th­ese dif­fer­ent [uses for knives].”

That’s the na­ture of what he cre­ates, he says. No mat­ter their shape or size, knives are adapted to be worked with. That’s the beauty of his craft.

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