Through the wonders of the friend’s grapevine we contacted Emile and Denise. We had decided to buy a house by the sea in southern Brittany and sent them, as we did many others, our wish-list, just in case they knew of anything suitable. As if by return, Denise sent us the details of a converted stable with pig-stye in Tréguennec – their neighbouring village. Soon we visited their discovery; it was perfect, and within a week we had signed on the dotted line.
But there was much more to their help than finding our new house – Emile and Denise befriended us warmly, lodged us in their home time and again, shared with us their favourite walks, haunts and restaurants, and introduced us to the local culture and history. It was also through them that we found the gifted artisans who renovated our new buy.
Emile and I soon became close friends. Although he spoke no English, and I next to no French, we just clicked. In one of our earliest, and perhaps oddest, conversations we discussed kitchen cutlery, more precisely kitchen knives. By using, as examples, knives taken from around his kitchen and, in particular, from a drawer just below the draining board, it soon became clear that this was a topic about which we were both passionate and on which our views coincided.
The ideal kitchen knife should have a non-bendy, easily-sharpenable blade with an edge that was true and could cut along its whole length. In no circumstances should the cutting edge be either serrated or bevelled; both of us saw using these as unthinkable. Finally, any knife of ours had to be well balanced with a handle comfortable to hold. As part of our conversation, Emile took from the drawer, and almost caressed, a slicing knife with a wooden handle – it was one of his favourites. The pleasure we got from sharing our views was in strong contrast with the bemused disinterest shown by our wives!
In 2006, so two years after our first meeting, Emile died and, knowing of our shared ‘cutlery’ interest, Denise offered to give me one of his knives as a keepsake. But that offer never materialised. Two years later she too died and that, I assumed, was the end of the matter.
The story of our shared love of knives had become part of their family mythology and recently, when their house was put on the market having stood empty for nearly eleven years, the knife story resurfaced. As part of the clear-out, their youngest daughter invited me round to look into that same drawer under the draining board and to take any knife I fancied. And there it was, Emile’s wooden-handled treasure. When I picked it out, a tearful Haud said how Emile would be delighted to know that I would be using one of his favourites. Now it lives in the knife drawer under our own draining board and every time it slices so cleanly through a tomato or a carrot, or makes its neat tapping noise on the chopping board, memories of dear Emile return.
But there is more. I soon realised that one of the fixings on the handle now protruded a fraction and there was a real risk that it might scratch its user. The man at the local coutellerie – knife shops still exist in France! – looked at the handle, felt the offending fixing and with a resigned expression told me that the knife was done for. He surmised that it had been repeatedly put in a dishwasher and that the wood had shrunk. Although he thought that there could be no lasting remedy, he had an idea. With a few deft hammer blows, and a momentary session with a tiny metal sander, the handle’s smoothness was restored, and all without demanding payment.
As I was leaving, I asked the shop assistant if my knife had any value. ‘None’, he replied ‘With no manufacturer’s name on the blade, a malfunctioning fixing and a blade that does not go the length of the handle, it is worthless. Why not buy a real knife stamped with a marque such as Sabatier or Victorinox?’ I declined his suggestion. The sentimental value of Emile’s hand-me-down knife meant that, while it had no commercial value, for me it was priceless and irreplaceable. I felt sure he would understand.