Knives – go east
Most of us have far too many knives, often blunt, cluttering up our drawers and knife blocks. If on the other hand you own just one or two razor-sharp knives of distinctive quality your cooking will be transformed. A couple of perfect knives can be thought of as similar to your phone and computer: you don’t need multiple iterations of those. The bread knife can be retired if you have a super-sharp flat-bladed knife in a largish size – so much better for cutting through any loaf. A properly sharp knife banishes the pain of cutting a pile of onions, as the thinness of its blade breaks down less of the onion tissue, releasing a negligent amount of eye-burning juice into the air.
It is all about quality. For years – decades - we used knives of a wide range of sizes and shapes from a popular French label. What they had in common was thick steel all the way down the blade, reducing their effectiveness. Then our youngest son introduced us to the world of Japanese knives. Here is a handy guide to upgrading your kitchen collection by going Japanese, though we maintain that a very small number of top-quality knives is all you need. Once you have made this investment, maintenance is vital. The knives require regular sharpening. For this, a traditional steel works perfectly, no need for stones. The best way to store a knife is in a wooden block. We always incorporate an end-grain knife block at the centre of our kitchen designs, next to the chopping block. A good alternative is wrapping each knife individually in a leather folder.
The ultimate, deeply satisfying, activity is making your own knife in your workshop using Japanese methods. You need an anvil, a forge and a belt sander. This is how it is done.
Start by cutting a sheet of good quality steel to the size and shape you want. Heat this up, then hammer out a taper towards the tip on an anvil; a thin point at the end finely pierces delicate tomatoes, onion skins, meat and fish. Once the outline shape is formed, heat treat the steel using a forge.
Next, create the bevel, the cutting angle, by grinding. Use a coarse file like a farrier’s or a jig or grinder. Drill holes for handle rivets.
Heat treat again. This normalises the steel after cutting the shape out, hammering the tip and grinding the bevel, actions that create invisible stresses/weaknesses in the metal’s structure. In a forge, bring the steel up to cherry-red temperature, at which point it is demagnetised. Cool in the air, then repeat three times until it is returned to a stable state. It is then ready for the hardening process known as quenching. Bring it up to the red hot non-magnetised state. While still very hot, quickly plunge it into oil to quench. The Japanese use water for this but we recommend oil. This process hardens the steel and makes it incredibly brittle. You could snap the tip in your fingers.
Temper, or soften, next so that the knife will flex as well as retain its hard edge. Wrap it in foil and place it in a hot domestic oven. It will change from black to straw coloured and after cooling is then ready for its handle.
Trace out and cut two wooden scales from a piece of attractive hardwood like oak, or horn. Drill holes then put aluminium rivets through scales and steel. Using a ball hammer, peen the soft aluminium over the wood to hold tightly in place – glue is not used. Finally shape the handle with a file, sand and oil if using wood. You will have made a fine personalised piece of equipment to use with pleasure every day.