French

The Iconic French Knives I’d Climb the Alps For

On childhood, cheese, and a pocket knife full of memories.

November  6, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

I’m in a lamplit tavern in Chambéry, France—it’s actually called the Café de Lyon, but my brain is in a time zone six hours behind, so let’s say it’s that tavern from Beauty and the Beast. The one where Gaston sings about decorating with antlers. Except we’re drinking very fancy red wine and I’m scraping marrow from a halved bone with a steak knife, spreading it deliriously across a piece of bread that yields in just-baked sublimity.

Our guides, Alex and Francoise, are teaching us how to do the French sign for "you’ve had one bottle of Bordeaux too many," twisting a fisted hand in front of their noses, and laughing at our attempts.

When we leave, the Alps are awash in pink.

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Comment a l l e y-vous? 😉

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Picture this: I’m eight years old and my mother has taken us—my younger brother and I—to the lake down the road from our home. The lake isn’t open to the public, and everywhere rotting signs tell us not to trespass. But there’s no one here because summer isn’t quite full-fledged, so we sneak through a hole in the fence.

She’s brought sandwiches—ham and American cheese on white bread—from the gas station, apples, and one giant chocolate chip cookie in a waxed paper bag. We sit on a blanket under a sprawling pine tree. She slices everything with her favorite pocket knife—it’s a fixture in the cutlery drawer, always somewhere between the bottle opener and a set of shears. Its handle is worn to softness; its blade still glinting good-as-new.

I didn’t know it then, but this knife had a history dating back to 1890, having been designed by Joseph Opinel, an undeniable genius who grew up on a mountainside in the French Alps. I didn’t know that its design had remained unchanged for over a century. Or that it had been one of Pablo Picasso’s most beloved tools. I certainly didn’t know that one day I’d be in the French Alps, visiting the Opinel factory where this, the knife I’d grown up with, was still being made.

Joseph Opinel Photo by Opinel France
I didn’t know it then, but this knife had a history dating back to 1890, having been designed by Joseph Opinel, an undeniable genius who grew up on a mountainside in the French Alps. I certainly didn’t know that one day I’d be in the French Alps, visiting the factory where this, the knife I’d grown up with, was still being made.

It smells gloriously of warm sawdust in the part of the factory where they manufacture the handles. I am mesmerized by one machine in particular which feeds uniform rectangular blocks of wood through the whirring, clunking, thrumming machinations, then deposits it, smooth and curved, no bigger than a Tootsie Roll, into a bin of identical handles. This is Opinel’s smallest knife, the No. 2. The largest in the line, a machete-length blade, is the No. 13.

There is something unmistakably Willy Wonkian about it all. If Wonka Bars had been produced with sustainability and eco-friendliness in mind, that is. At Opinel, every last bit of wood dust is carefully suctioned through chutes that lead to a silo. The chips and dust will eventually be used to heat the buildings in the winter. Even the stainless steel residue is repurposed, packed and shipped to concrete plants. Nothing goes to waste.

Photo by opinelus┬®thvallier
Photo by opinelus┬®thvallier

But as impressive as it is watching carbon steel blades pirouette through a state-of-the-art contraption that pieces together, stamps, and folds each knife, there’s something infinitely more noteworthy about the production line: the people who work there. Opinel has just as many women employed on site as men, many of whom have been there for decades.

Everyone I met seemed to genuinely love what they did—including a man named Jacques who’d been operating the same machine for 40 years. His eyes barely left the lever he used to punch out the pieces of metal that will become Opinel’s signature safety ring on thousands of knives, from an endless ribbon of steel, but he smiled broadly for our photos.

That evening, I find myself sitting in front of a cheeseboard the size of a raft. It’s an ode to les fromages de Savoie: There’s Tomme, with its grey-bespeckled, bloomy rind, and Reblochon, made on location at the farm we’re visiting, La Ferme de la Charbonniere. What you don’t know is that only minutes before, we’d tucked into cauldrons of fondue and expanses of sizzling raclette. But we aren’t deterred (it must be the Alpine air), cutting ourselves generous hunks with this knife, and toasting this dairy Elysium with beer made from Mont Blanc snow. The smell of hay wafts up from the cowbarn just below us. Someone brings more cornichons to the table.

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will dream of cheese!

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The next day would take us to the Musée Opinel in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to meet Jacques and Maxine Opinel, the family members managing the company. We would see the village Joseph grew up in, and the ruins of his first-ever factory, once powered by the nearby river. We would see many more knives—for slicing bread; small, child-sized versions with colorful handles; beautiful heirloom pieces made from ebony and olive wood; even a record-bearing 16-foot giant that serves as a landmark for the participants of the Tour de France.

In the end, however, the knife I take back home to my studio in New York is the folding knife, unassuming but infinitely important, the knife we once used to cut gas-station sandwiches by a lake that was not ours.

Do you have a personal Opinel story of your own? Tell us in the comments below!

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Maggie Slover

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2 Comments

Cody K. November 6, 2019
Lovely story / image of man with giant knife!
 
Gordon November 6, 2019
For kitchen knives these are very nice. They have a good weight to them and are comfortable in your hand. But for a pocket knife I prefer a knife from Forge de Laguiole. I have two 9 cm ones. One was a gift and was made with Damascus steel. It is such a beautiful knife I seldom use it! The french make some really excellent quality knives. They arer like Divas of the knife world.