By Johnny Scott of The Field
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Carving knives: Knowing how to carve is an essential skill. The art of carving and making carving-knives is explained by Johnny Scott
Sad to think that in many households much of the happy anticipation associated with Christmas luncheon will evaporate as soon as paterfamilias picks up his carving knife - probably unused for the past 12 months - and tries to dismantle the festive bird. Even the jolliest family affair can be enveloped in gloom by the efforts of a carver with a blunt knife. Not long ago, when it was common practice among most families to eat Sunday lunch together, there was someone in every household proficient in carving. It was a skill passed from generation to generation with a noble and ancient history.
At a time when the main food source was derived from anything that swam, ran or flew, the art of carving was elevated to become part of the code of chivalry, with a language as complicated as that of hawking. Every species of fur, fish or fowl had to be carved according to individual specifications based on their standing in the laws of hunting.
Peacocks were disfigured, herons dismembered, mallard unbraced, cranes displayed and swans lifted. Plovers were minced, bitterns unjointed, woodcock, pigeon and smaller birds were thighed, while partridges and quail were winged. There were at least 20 ways of carving fish; pike were splatted, barbels tusked, eels traunsened, sturgeon traunched and porpoises undertraunched. Birds were not to be lifted by the legs, venison was not to be touched by either hand and only the left hand used for beef or mutton.
The exact spot to begin carving a roast was governed by elaborate rules with slices from the larger beasts presented on a broad-bladed serving carver, cut into four bite-sized pieces held together by the fatty top strap. This was held in the hand, the pieces were chewed off, then it was thrown to the dogs. A thorough knowledge of carving was considered so important that before the golden spurs of knighthood could be granted, a period of noviciate had to be spent as a carving esquire. Carvers in royal and noble households tended to be aristocrats of lesser rank. A knight carved for a baron, a baron for an earl, an earl for a marquis, and so on. The Earls of Denbigh and Desmond are the Hereditary Grand Carvers of England and the Anstruther's of that Ilk, the heritable Master Carvers to the Royal Household of Scotland. Such was the social gravitas attached to carving, that The Boke of Kervynge was published in 1500 by Wynkyn de Worde for the benefit of upwardly mobile Tudors at a time when few books were being printed at all.
Having the art of carving as part of the code of chivalry was an expression of gratitude for food on the table, and the same is true of the workmanship in making carving knives. Cutlers during the Middle Ages had a similar stature to jewellers, master armourers and illuminators, fashioning knives with handles of polished bone, horn, wood or brass, inlaid with silver and gold or set with agate, amber or lapis lazuli.
The cutler's art thrived during the following three centur-ies, as banquets became increasingly elaborate. Implements of great beauty were created as new and exotic materials became available; ivory, rock crystal, cornelian, mother-of-pearl, coral or silver set with niello. Some have survived in museums of the art and evolution of cutlery, giving an inkling of the pageantry of eating, when joints reigned supreme and "made" dishes were never considered a main course.
Cutlers made less elaborate but more elegant carving knives during the 19th century. It became customary for newly married couples to have a boxed set as the centrepiece of their wedding gift display. This tradition persisted until eating habits changed, the weekend joint became largely a thing of the past and the art of carving was gradually lost to a whole generation. It is difficult to find anything similar to the craftsmanship that existed when carving was at least a weekly occurrence in most households and Sheffield was world famous for quality knives. There are, of course, quality chefs' knives available in the latest technology stainless steel or carbon steel, but these are essentially kitchen knives and ought not to be used in the dining-room.
A "carvery" of knives - the correct term for a set of carving knives - should consist of two knives, one with a blade 22cm long and 2.5cm in depth for large joints of meat and the bigger birds. The other - for small joints and gamebirds - should be around 15cm long and 2cm deep. The blades must be slightly rounded as they rise to the point, for working into thigh joints. The set should include a steel and a carving-fork. Until the early 17th century, forks were unheard of in Britain, either for carving or eating.
Joints were anchored by a smaller knife or skewer and it was the carver's job to see that slices of meat were presented in edible pieces; thereafter the fingers or a spoon were used. Thomas Coryat, the son of a Westcountry squire, is credited with introducing forks on his return from a tour of Italy, where they had been in use for some time. Initially, neither Coryat or his fork was well received; he was lampooned on the stage as a furcifer - from the Latin fork-bearer or rascal - a nickname which stuck, and was condemned from the pulpit for suggesting "that God's good gifts were unfit to be touched by human hands". However, Jacobean England was becoming more sophisticated and the fashion of elaborate lace cuffs dictated a change in eating habits. Forks were soon in common usage, except in the Royal Navy where they were considered effeminate until well into the 18th century.
Because so many of them were still in use until the Sixties, carvery sets of Sheffield steel knives in good condition, many of them a hundred years old, can still be found on bric-à-brac stalls, in antique shops or on eBay. Anyone wishing to buy a set should look for knives with a depth of 2.5cm or 2cm - depending on size - that still retain a straight cutting edge, and handles that firmly fit the blade. A set in this condition will have bags of life left in it and if the soft Sheffield steel is discoloured, it can easily be brought back by rubbing with a paste made from ordinary baking soda moistened with water, vinegar or lemon juice. If water is used, be sure to wrap the blades in blotting paper after wiping dry to remove any moisture. Knives like these were made for the dining-room, in the days when they were expected to be in frequent use. They were intended to look impressive, but great care was taken in their balance and the way the antler or polished bone handles fitted into the hand. They will be more pleasant and appropriate to use than any modern equivalent.
There is no point in attempting to carve unless the knives are properly sharpened. Modern carbon steel or stainless steel knives have sharp, factory-ground blades which will hold their edge indefinitely. Unless you know how to use a whetstone, an old set of Sheffield steel knives discovered in an attic, bought from an antique shop or off eBay will require professional sharpening. Here, your butcher will almost certainly oblige - particularly if he thinks you will be buying joints in the future - by sharpening your knives on the electronic grinding-stone which every butcher has in his shop.
Once the knives are sharpened the edge is maintained by the steel. Many people are put off using a steel having seen the almost acrobatic dexterity with which chefs or butchers use one. Butchers are cutting meat all day, every day and are not maintaining the edge on their knives. They are sharpening them, using a different steel to the one in a carvery.
A butchers' steel is heavily serrated; a carvery one is virtually smooth and straightens the edge of a knife which is already sharp. Maintaining the edge of a carving-knife is simple. Take the steel in the left hand and place the point on the edge of a table. Hold the steel level with the top of the table; place your knife on the steel with the two handles almost touching and the sharp edge of the knife facing away from you. With the knife at right angles to the steel, turn the blade to an angle of 25 degrees and stroke it along the steel in a half circle, keeping the two handles close together. This covers the whole length of the blade in one smooth action. Repeat a couple of times, then turn the blade over and start the process again from the point of the steel back towards you. Assuming the knife has not previously been blunted, it is now ready to use.
There are a number of ways to preserve the edge of your knife during carving. Never apply undue pressure; this compacts meat fibres, alters the shape of the joint, creates uneven slices and will ultimately blunt the knife. Let the knife do the work for you. It should be weightless in the hand and the whole length of the blade should be used in long, even strokes. Be aware of the bone. When carving roast beef, for example, make an incision along the rib-bone every so often to allow slices to fall free as you reach that point.
Always use a wooden carving-board when carving a rolled, boneless joint. Nothing ruins a knife quicker than coming into contact with metal or porcelain. After carving, wipe the knives with a damp cloth, dry them, rub the blades with olive oil and wrap them in greaseproof paper. Never wash them in soapy water; this causes rust where the shank joins the handle and the knife will eventually break.
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