It’s the crucial instrument for the true oenophile — a handcrafted Laguiole corkscrew — and our author’s on a quest to find the perfect one.
It’s said to be in the shape of a gleaming knife blade, shooting 60 feet up from the French countryside, ready to impale a falling sky. In reality, it looks more like a shark fin, gliding across these pastoral rolling hills like a menacing brute. Either way, lauded international designer and architect Philippe Starck’s striking Forge de Laguiole factory in Laguiole, France, upsets the traditional French architecture found in these parts in a wonderfully modern way. It is an eyesore of the third kind, by design aimed to stand out and personally usher in the 21st century in a region of southern France that has changed very little since who knows when.
There is a reason such a drastic architectural statement was necessary. This windowless marriage of glass, steel, and aluminum looks like nothing else south of Paris, much like the knives and corkscrews — which stand alone the world over in craftsmanship and history — that are being meticulously forged by hand inside its walls. The village of Laguiole (pronounced “Lag-yol”), located in the ridiculously gorgeous Aveyron region of southern France’s Midi-Pyrenees, began producing knives in 1829 as a do-all shepherd’s tool. There is much more to the story than that, but first things first.
I’ve come to this village of 1,264 in search of the Laguiole knife’s cousin — the famous Laguiole corkscrew (cleverly known in French as a sommelier). Anyone with a vested interest in wine knows about Laguiole. Its corkscrews are beloved works of art, exquisite down to every painstaking detail, forged by hand so that lovers of wine derive as much pleasure from opening a bottle of Château Margaux as they do drinking it. Tell a casual wine-drinking friend what you paid for one — usually between $100 and $300 — and they’ll likely think you a candidate for the sanitorium. Let them think what they may. The Laguiole corkscrew is so precious, in fact, that oftentimes oenophiles wouldn’t dare open a bottle of wine without one.
Obviously, I had to have one. But not just any one, mind you; I had to have the perfect one. Like the never-ending search for endless love, I’ll await her word. She’ll leap out from behind the glass cases at one of the 24 knife boutiques (known as coutelleries) in and around Laguiole and speak to me. “I will henceforth open every bottle of wine in your collection with deft precision and a sophisticated attention to detail,” she will say. “I am devoted to you. I will never fail you. And your friends will all be quite jealous.”
Despite its small size, Laguiole is home to two Michelin-starred restaurants (France’s respected-to-the-death rating system) — the one-star Grand Hôtel Auguy and the three-star Michel Bras — so I plan on being well fed in this gourmand’s heaven as I scour the town for the One.
Laguiole is on a high plateau, surrounded by beautifully barren Crayola-green hills flush with yellow gentian flowers (from which a bitter local aperitif is made) and dotted with Aubrac cows, originally raised by medieval monks and unique to this region. The roads are peculiarly winding, said to be that way because farmers bribed road workers with bottles of wine to not run routes across their properties. Laguiole, I would come to find out, is full of stories such as this.
The coutelleries are closed by the time I arrive, so I head straight to Chambres d’Hôtes de Moulhac, a wonderful 1814 farmhouse on the outskirts of the village. Proprietor Claudine Long greets me with some vin de noix (nut wine), another local concoction made by infusing sugar and walnuts in red wine for up to six months. It’s slightly less sweet than port and absolutely wonderful. Dinner at Grand Hôtel Auguy offers me my first glimpse of the Laguiole knife — both a butter version and a steak version. The former feels substantial to the touch as it slathers butter across my apricot-and-pistachio bread; the latter slices through my thyme-laced lamb like hot steel through sorbet.
Pierre-Jean Calmels first produced the Laguiole knife in 1829, combining a regional fixed-knife blade known as a capuchadou with a Spanish pocketknife known as a navaja. The Laguiole folding knife was born. Peasants freaked over it. They used it to slice bread, to cut branches for baskets, and even to relieve the bloated stomachs of overfed farm animals. In 1880, when locals began migrating to Paris for work as waiters and barkeeps, a corkscrew was added. Then a funny thing happened.
By the time 1900 rolled around, there weren’t a whole lot of knife makers left in Laguiole, and the Calmels family moved their production to Thiers, some 100 miles away, where manufacturing limped along with an eye toward profit, not passion. Rumor has it, though, that Pierre Calmels, the great-grandson of Pierre-Jean, didn’t want locals to know they were no longer making knives in town. He kept up the ruse for 50 years, duping the local population by keeping his entire operation under wraps.
His excuse for the shroud of secrecy? He was protecting the family methods of knife making. Just in case someone came snooping around, Calmels always kept a few knives in production at his coutellerie, which exists today as the village’s oldest. “But even those were made from parts from Thiers!” says Michel Chambon, co-owner of Le Couteau de Laguiole, one of the leading knife ateliers.
Forge de Laguiole
If you go...
Route de l’Aubrac bp 9
Le Couteau de Laguiole
Place du Nouveau Foirail
Chambres d’hôtes de Moulhac
Grand Hôtel Auguy
2 Allée de l’Amicale
12470 St. Chély d’Aubrac
Route de l’Aubrac
Chambon was one of a few nostalgic locals who were inspired by the mayor of Laguiole to take back the tradition from Thiers and bring the craft back to Laguiole. By the mid-1980s, the village once again had sprung to life under the blades of its ancestors. Nowadays, the entire region lives and dies by knives and corkscrews.
Laguiole’s main street, Allée de L’Amicale, is anything but a typical French thoroughfare. Where there should be patisseries, chocolatiers, and brasseries, there are coutelleries, one after another, fighting for space like Napoleonic infantrymen. I stroll from one to the next, heeding local warnings that this highly profitable industry has spawned its share of impostors quick to import knives and slap on Laguiole’s distinctive bee symbol and a 100-euro price tag. I find, however, that sussing out the quality pieces is the easy part (don’t buy anything not marked with the quality-control guarantee Laguiole Origine Garantie).
The difficult bit is finding her. As is the case in life, she is quick to play the passive role. It’s like staring into a sea of supermodels and trying to pluck out the angel. Aren’t they all precious angels? Just when I begin to lose faith, I decide I’ll just make my own.
One of the coolest things about visiting Laguiole is that for €152.45 (the weird price is due to the conversion from the French franc, which made a lot more sense at 1,000; either way, it’s about $182), you can work alongside a local coutelier, or knife maker, from Le Couteau de Laguiole, and build your own Laguiole knife from scratch, learning the entire process along the way.
Coutelier Pascal Brun begins the four-hour class by showing me pieces of cow horn, the traditional material for the knife’s handle. Aubrac cows don’t live long enough to grow horns lengthy enough for knife use, so locals use Zebu cow horns, imported from Madagascar, which can grow as long as six feet end to end. I’m told that making a sommelier is too complicated, but a tire bouchon, a traditional folding knife with a corkscrew attached (as opposed to a dedicated wine tool), is possible. We head upstairs to the workshop.
There are about 40 steps to the process, and Laguiole’s true couteliers pride themselves on their “one man, one knife” mantra, meaning each piece is assembled and finished by hand by a single artisan. At Le Couteau, a staff of seven churns out about 60 knives and corkscrews per day.
I begin by sanding down the brass bolsters and pretty much don’t stop sanding, drilling, and polishing for the remainder of the class. At one point, when I’m filing down the handle, Brun tells me the shape I’m going for is that of a woman’s derriere, confirming my suspicions that these guys love these knives and corkscrews like they do women, perhaps even more. The hardest part of the whole process is keeping myself from burning off a finger in the automatic sandblaster. Incredibly, my tire bouchon comes together before my eyes in no time. Mission accomplished, or so I think.
Later that evening, I meet a most extraordinary woman by the name of Catherine Painvin. She owns a remarkable hostel in nearby Aubrac called Comptoir Aubrac, which dates back to the 1860s. It would be impossible to sum her up in a few sentences, but long story short, she started the world-famous luxury baby-clothes line Tartine et Chocolat in the ’70s — something that has afforded her the pleasure of owning six castles and châteaus, 23 polo teams, and a handful of hospitals worldwide — and gave it all up to move to a four-building village in the south of France where she shares her astonishing lust for life with anyone who cares to listen.
The Comptoir Aubrac, a former hotel that housed patients of a nearby stomach hospital, is filled with knickknacks from Painvin’s travels in Tibet, India, and Mongolia, and each room is uniquely decorated; they’re like no other rooms you have ever seen. Radna, her giant Leonberger dog, keeps the peace. It goes without saying that I decide to invite her to dinner with me at Michel Bras, one of the most renowned restaurants in all of France.
Michel Bras’s three-star establishment (Michelin’s highest possible star designation) juts out from a hillside overlooking the entire region. Like Starck’s Forge de Laguiole, it butts heads not only with the architectural style of the surrounding countryside but with restaurants across all of France. Like the food, there is nothing traditional about it.
The evening begins with an aperitif — in this case, gentian laced with local spearmint — in the restaurant’s all-glass cocktail room that would seem more suited to a museum of modern art than to a provincial French restaurant, which is just how Bras wants it. The view is unparalleled.
A meal here isn’t just an evening out; it’s a life-changing kaleidoscope of tastes and textures that wrap around your five senses like a boa constrictor, shocking your taste buds into submission. We go for broke: the nine-course Discovery and Nature tasting menu for €152 (around $182). I won’t even attempt to describe the entire meal, but highlights included a warm salad of about 30 different vegetables, each one steamed to perfection; the local specialty, called aligot, which will forever jade my outlook on traditional mashed potatoes (this heaven-sent version is whipped with the local Laguiole cheese and churned tableside); as well as anisette-laced cotton candy.
As the sommelier, Sergio Calderon, pairs the wines with each course, I notice his corkscrew. Of course it’s a Laguiole, but it’s one that I have not seen before. It turns out that it was designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a famous French architect who has designed such notable buildings as the Musée Hennessey in Cognac and Café Richelieu in the Louvre.
“We worked together to design a beautiful corkscrew that was also practical,” Calderon tells me. “He designed it, and I tested it out and gave him my opinion. It took two years to do this. It’s not just a commercial corkscrew. It’s something that matured in our minds. It is a work of art.”
She would be mine. The next morning, I head to Forge de Laguiole, which makes the Wilmotte corkscrew, in addition to those designed by Starck, Hermès, and Eric Raffy, who, with Philippe Villeroux, also fashioned the unconventional building that houses Michel Bras. The gallery at the building’s entrance is beautiful; just beyond it, you can see the couteliers at work.
On display is a dizzying array of knives and corkscrews. They come with handles carved from snakewood, rosewood, juniper wood, ebony, bone, and even ivory — pinched from a stash on hand that was acquired before hunting elephants became illegal. Wilmottes come in padauk, ebony, black horn, and acrylic. I become torn between his unconventional design and the traditional corkscrews nearby. My head is spinning. That’s when she catches my eye.
Over in the corner sits a traditional number. Dark and exotic and curved like an aristocratic maven, she is calling out to me, “I am yours.” And so it was.
Kevin Raub is a Los Angeles-based travel and entertainment journalist. His work has appeared in Travel+Leisure, the New York Post, FHM, and Stuff, among other publications. if you bring the wine, he’ll bring the corkscrew.