The Aveyron town of Laguiole sits at the edge of the stark and empty but stunningly beautiful Aubrac plateau. We passed through there several years ago on our way to the Aubrac cattle transhumance, which takes place every year in late May. It was 1 degree C and snowed the following day.
The town, whose name is pronounced “lah-yole”, is famous for three things. Laguiole cheese is similar to Cantal and was formerly made in the remote stone burons by the shepherds who lived there all summer. Michel Bras’ world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurant is close by. And it’s the home of the eponymous knife, although the use of the name has been hotly contested. More on that below.
Laguiole knives started out as traditional folding pocket knives and may have been introduced to France by Catalan shepherds. Jean-Louis Calmels is credited with designing the classic Laguiole knife in 1829, with its distinctive bee motif between the handle and the blade. The handle was originally made of cow horn, of which there was a plentiful supply from the local cattle.
As the 19th century progressed, other implements were added to the knife, such as a poinçon, a gimlet that farmers used to puncture the stomachs of cattle with colic. Corkscrews were added in response to requests from the many Aveyronnais and Auvergnat bar owners in Paris, who retained a strong connection with their native region. The town of Thiers, cutlery capital of France, also produces the knives.
Several knife manufacturers operate in Laguiole and some offer guided tours of the workshop as well as selling the products. The knives are all handmade, involving well over a hundred different processes. The number of designs has multiplied and exotic woods are often used for the handles as well as horn.
But…Laguiole is a type of knife, not a brand name. The original design was not registered as a trademark. A wide range of cutlery bearing the Laguiole name is now produced worldwide, which has led to bitter court battles about the rights to the name.
A company based near Paris registered the name as a trademark, which it applied to imported goods from China. The townsfolk of Laguiole retained the right to manufacture the knives, but not to apply the name to other products. In 2012, they marched to Paris to protest against what they saw as the theft of their name. But court cases in 2014 established that the knife was a generic product not associated with a particular place.
The wrangle didn’t end there. In September this year [post written in 2016], that ruling was overturned by the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest appeal court. They ruled that the previous decision could lead to confusion about the origins of goods and that people who bought a Laguiole knife should expect it to be made there. The decision has yet to be enacted, but the proud folk of Laguiole feel vindicated.
I bought the knife at the top of the post for the SF several Christmases ago. The stallholder in Villefranche-de-Rouergue market threw in a leather case for it as well. It has a special compartment for a knife sharpener, but he didn’t throw in one of those.
Tradition says that giving a knife cuts the ties of friendship, so the recipient should offer the giver a coin in exchange. Naturally, I respected this tradition and exacted a euro.
Another tradition associated with the knife is la croix du berger (the shepherd’s cross). Around the end of the 19th century, Laguiole knives started to be manufactured with a cross on one side of the handle. The devout shepherds were often too far from a place of worship and so lodged the blade in the ground or in a wedge of bread, thus creating a DIY oratory.
We haven’t been back to the Aubrac since the transhumance, so a visit is overdue. It’s excellent walking country, but it’s snowbound in the winter, so this will have to wait until next year.
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