Mass-produced blades may dominate the average kitchen, but British artisans are fighting back. Hugh Thomas reveals the craft behind Blenheim Forge’s handmade knives, forged in Peckham and inspired by Japan, in a new kind of daily grind.
It could be straight out of Great Expectations: a dusty grotto, tucked under a Victorian railway arch, where trains rumble and clack overhead. There’s a grinder made from bits of engine and a beer barrel. 20 or so santoku handmade knives lined up on a wooden rack. A couple of heavy cleavers, handle-less, lie flat-side down next to them.
James Ross-Harris, who’s just greeted me with a sooty hand, is running the forge today. He hands me one of the santoku knifes – a multi-purpose kitchen blade shorter and with less of a rounded edge than its European chef knife equivalent – which the forge produces on a daily basis. Even with a copper rung at the top of the handle to provide balance, it’s light – much lighter than the Mercer knife I use everyday at home. The blade fades from black to grey, like where a half moon meets the night sky. Towards the edge, a dozen thin silver lines run from heel to tip. ‘It’s blue paper steel mostly,’ says James. ‘From Hitachi in Japan. It’s very pure with a lot of carbon in it, which means it’ll hold a good edge. Pain to get a hold of, and not cheap.’
Blenheim Forge’s team of three, James Ross-Harris, Richard Warner and Jon Warshawsky, produce 20 to 30 of santoku knives a week. A couple of days’ work – forging, heating, cooling, cutting, bashing, grinding, polishing, and oiling – goes into each one. That’s without taking the sculpting and gluing of the wooden handles into account. James points to a slab of timber in the corner, soon to be cut down. ‘That’s bog oak. It’s 5,300 years old.’
“If you made 100,000 of our knives, and put them in John Lewis, it’d be a disaster.”
It’s a bit of a contrast to how chef’s knives are industrially made today in large, pristine factories with precision lasers and oscillating robot arms. These factories punch out hundreds of knives a day, which end up in anywhere from supermarkets to cook shops. The commercial kitchen knife business is a lucrative one, but James and his team have no such aspirations.
‘If you made 100,000 of our knives, and put them in John Lewis, it’d be a disaster,’ says James. ‘Half of them would come back broken, because they’re high performance tools not meant to be chucked around. In the shops they have to be stainless steel, as people will want to put them in the dishwasher. And they can’t have a super-fine edge because people are going to try open tins of beans with them.’
Back garden beginnings
To begin with, James wasn’t interested in making knives. What fascinated him more was the Japanese technique of laminating which involves folding layers of steel and iron (iron the forge reclaim from what James describes as ‘old anchor chains and stuff’) together. ‘The more you get into it, the more you realise the Japanese style is a smart way to make a knife – you’re using a small amount of high quality material in the right place.’
It’s very difficult to do, and takes blacksmiths years to perfect. But with a bit of patience and luck, while using a forge he put together with a leaf blower, firebricks and bits of old steel, James was able to hammer out a decent knife in his back garden. ‘Get half a ton of coal delivered to your house, and you’re off, basically.’
That was a few years ago. Now, the waiting list for one of Blenheim Forge’s knives often dips into three weeks. Tim Hayward is a fan, and Jay Rayner’s got a set. Francis Mallmann, the Argentinian chef who appeared on Chef’s Table, came into the forge and ‘bought shit loads’, as James says. They’ve even had a couple of orders from Japan, and may soon be stocking their British-made Japanese knives in a knife shop over there.
“These are tools meant to be used.”
There are plenty willing to buy these blades. But the problem is getting people to want to use them. Attitudes aren’t unlike splashing out on a Lamborghini, only to roll it out the garage twice a year. ‘We run sharpening courses,’ says James. ‘And people come in and their knives are still sharp. Sometimes we need to remind people these are tools meant to be used.’
Sure, a £240 tool needs the odd bit of maintenance. But that needn’t be as daunting as it sounds. Being steel, the blades can rust. So the most important part of looking after a knife like this is to keep it dry after using – storing it with a thin coat of oil on the steel, for example, certainly helps. To anyone who already cooks with carbon steel pans at home, this will sound all too familiar.
Then there’s the issue of sharpening, which is actually more of a hassle with stainless steel knives, as they’re a much softer compound. James recommends using a whetstone once every three or four months and forgetting the honing steel – a steel rod used to realign blade edges – because it tends to whittle too much material from the blade. ‘Unless you have a high end steel, like diamond steel, and in the right hands, the blade is so hard it’ll just skate off it.’
A handmade knife revolution?
These are things we’d be more clued up on 50 or so years ago, when you’d see smiths making knives in a similar way to Blenheim Forge, but on a grander scale. It’s strange to think that, going back another 50 years, Britain – especially Sheffield – was famous for its steelmaking. Looking at what’s going on in this little workshop, and in other smiths around the country, you’d be tempted to call it part of a grander revitalisation in Britain’s artisan steel industry. Could that be the the case? Or is this just three young chaps in a grimy railway arch knocking out super-sharp chefs’ tools? Either way, they’re doing a darn good job of it.