A Cut Above the Rest: Laguiole Knives

Laguiole knife I gave the SF one Christmas

Laguiole knife I gave the SF one Christmas

The Aveyron town of Laguiole sits at the edge of the stark and empty but stunningly beautiful Aubrac plateau. We passed through there several years ago on our way to the Aubrac cattle transhumance, which takes place every year in late May. It was 1 degree C and snowed the following day.

The town, whose name is pronounced “lah-yole”, is famous for three things. Laguiole cheese is similar to Cantal and was formerly made in the remote stone burons by the shepherds who lived there all summer. Michel Bras’ world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurant is close by. And it’s the home of the eponymous knife, although the use of the name has been hotly contested. More on that below.

Origins

Laguiole knives started out as traditional folding pocket knives and may have been introduced to France by Catalan shepherds. Jean-Louis Calmels is credited with designing the classic Laguiole knife in 1829, with its distinctive bee motif between the handle and the blade. The handle was originally made of cow horn, of which there was a plentiful supply from the local cattle.

Laguiole bee motif

Laguiole bee motif

As the 19th century progressed, other implements were added to the knife, such as a poinçon, a gimlet that farmers used to puncture the stomachs of cattle with colic. Corkscrews were added in response to requests from the many Aveyronnais and Auvergnat bar owners in Paris, who retained a strong connection with their native region. The town of Thiers, cutlery capital of France, also produces the knives.

Several knife manufacturers operate in Laguiole and some offer guided tours of the workshop as well as selling the products. The knives are all handmade, involving well over a hundred different processes. The number of designs has multiplied and exotic woods are often used for the handles as well as horn.

Aubrac cow - supplier of horn for the knife handles

Aubrac cow – supplier of horn for the knife handles

Contested name

But…Laguiole is a type of knife, not a brand name. The original design was not registered as a trademark. A wide range of cutlery bearing the Laguiole name is now produced worldwide, which has led to bitter court battles about the rights to the name.

A company based near Paris registered the name as a trademark, which it applied to imported goods from China. The townsfolk of Laguiole retained the right to manufacture the knives, but not to apply the name to other products. In 2012, they marched to Paris to protest against what they saw as the theft of their name. But court cases in 2014 established that the knife was a generic product not associated with a particular place.

The wrangle didn’t end there. In September this year, that ruling was overturned by the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest appeal court. They ruled that the previous decision could lead to confusion about the origins of goods and that people who bought a Laguiole knife should expect it to be made there. The decision has yet to be enacted, but the proud folk of Laguiole feel vindicated.

Laguiole traditions

I bought the knife at the top of the post for the SF several Christmases ago. The stallholder in Villefranche-de-Rouergue market threw in a leather case for it as well. It has a special compartment for a knife sharpener, but he didn’t throw in one of those.

Tradition says that giving a knife cuts the ties of friendship, so the recipient should offer the giver a coin in exchange. Naturally, I respected this tradition and exacted a euro.

Another tradition associated with the knife is la croix du berger (the shepherd’s cross). Around the end of the 19th century, Laguiole knives started to be manufactured with a cross on one side of the handle. The devout shepherds were often too far from a place of worship and so lodged the blade in the ground or in a wedge of bread, thus creating a DIY oratory.

We haven’t been back to the Aubrac since the transhumance, so a visit is overdue. It’s excellent walking country,  but it’s snowbound in the winter, so this will have to wait until next year.

Main square in the village of Aubrac, where the transhumance festivities take place

Main square in the village of Aubrac, where the transhumance festivities take place

You might also like:

A Moo-ving Experience: La Fête de la Transhumance 
Grist to the Mill: Peugeot from Crinolines to Cars and Pepper Mills
Book Review: Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to A Cut Above the Rest: Laguiole Knives

  1. Pingback: French Flavours #1: A is for Aligot | Life on La Lune

  2. I have several of these with the Bee motif – all picked up at vide greniers and the local brocante. They are lovely knives to use, fitting the hand so well. Well done to the people of Laguiole for sticking to their guns…or should that be sticking in their knives??

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A sensible decision by the court, laguiole knives from china? Bonkers. We did some raquette walking up near there years ago. I remember it as a bleak and windy place but we both love the cheese. A stronger flavour than the cantal. Bonne fete!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      When we were there for the transhumance in late May one year it was absolutely freezing. I’m sure the wind can sweep across those bare hillsides. People say that it’s lovely in spring and the meadows are a riot of wild flowers. We like the cheese, too, but I’m always a sucker for strong cheese.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Monique says:

    Beautiful knife!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      They are lovely knives, well balanced and a delight to hold in the hand. The one I bought for my husband has a pattern inlaid in brass in the wooden handle. He uses it a lot.

      Like

  5. I feel so happy for the people of Laguiole, and totally agree with them, so glad the ruling was overturned.

    Liked by 1 person

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