The story of the knife
Next in our series investigating the history of household objects, a look at the world’s oldest eating iron
We take a look at the world’s oldest eating iron
The knife has always been a device suited to drama, playing its part in various traditions – from the cutting of the wedding cake with a jewel-encrusted sword, to the Mexican folk dance with machetewielding performers and the Burns Night custom of rounding off the poetry reading by stabbing the haggis. Primarily, though, it’s a practical tool: here are some highlights of the knife’s evolution.
4 MILLION– 2,000 BC FLINT SLICER, Britain Stone Age dwellers carved a sharp-edged blade from flint for preparing meat that we recognise as the first ‘ kitchen knife’, even though the lump of rock looks more like a fossil to the modern eye. The British Museum has examples of over 100.
5TH –15TH CENTURY DAGGER, Britain Medieval men carried a small multi-purpose dagger. Gentry were expected to bring their own knife to dinner: ‘A whetstone was often placed by the entrance to the great hall for guests to sharpen their knives on before a feast,’ says Suzanne Von Drachenfels, author of The Art of The Table, (Abebooks, £12.30).
16TH CENTURY RITUAL KNIFE, Tibet The ceremonial role that knives play isn’t just for effect: Tibetan Buddhists turn to the wonderfully curved iron blade on speciallymade ritual knives to metaphorically ‘chop up’ negative forces and cut through any obstacles on the path to spirituality.
EARLY 19TH CENTURY MEZZALUNA, Italy Beloved by TV chef Nigella Lawson, the two-handled mezzaluna (so-called for its crescent blade) was invented for mincing garlic, finely chopping herbs at speed or cubing vegetables for soffritto, the essential Tuscan stew or soup base.
19TH CENTURY KNIFE REST, Britain The Victorians turned their taste for novelty decor to this contraption, used to keep tablecloths clean. High society rested knives on the tail of a silver peacock or a dachshund’s back. More commonly used were rests propped up by a pair of silver jacks, glass orbs or eagles.
MID-19TH CENTURY FISH SLICE, Britain Before this utensil was invented, English nobility would cut and serve fish with two dinner forks, because they considered it uncouth to use the knife for fish. The fish slice has a wide blade, adorned with a rich pattern, and a flick-shaped tip for separating the fish bone from the flesh.
20TH CENTURY SEBATIER BREAD KNIFE, France Cutlers and cooks around the world have long considered slicers stamped with the name of French brand Sebatier to be the best in the business. Originally an Auvergne-based manufacturer, it’s now an unofficial sign of quality used by several brands.
2017 SANTOKU KNIFE, Japan Santoku is Japanese for ‘three virtues’, and it’s the triple-use quality of the blade – slicing, dicing and mincing – that has put this scythe on chefs’ lust-lists. The flat grooves along the blade help prevent food from sticking to the knife. Try the ‘Signature Santoku’ knife, £42, Robert Welch (robertwelch.com).