A Fine Tool in the Hand

A Fine Tool in the Hand

It was billed as The World’s Most Special Corkscrew.

On Christmas Eve, 1999, Paris was rocked by the storm of the century, a maestro of a tempest that ripped up roof tiles, storefront awnings, toppled trees, and wreaked havoc throughout the city and beyond. A week or so prior, on a school term break from my studies at Le Cordon Bleu, I had departed France and returned home to Hawaii. I recall sitting in our small oceanfront condo in Kona, watching and listening to the azure waves on a sunny Christmas morning, my partner browsing the news on the Internet and then suddenly exclaiming, “Wow, Paris has been destroyed! Good thing you’re here and not there.”

I returned to Paris for New Year’s Eve of the millennium and discovered that the city was still recovering from the damage, and the French government had commandeered work forces from private jobs to help with the effort. When I enquired about the storm, asking the woman in whose Latin Quarter flat I was staying for my school year, Roberta shrugged. “We slept through it. I woke up once, thinking there was a lot of noise outside but figured it was just revelers in the streets or some party. But when I walked outside in the morning, oh la la! Quel désastre!”

In addition to the widespread demolition across the city, the gale winds had wrecked a large portion of the roof at the palace of Versailles, just outside of Paris. While the historic roof was ultimately replaced, in the famous gardens the damage to many trees was sadly catastrophic, with several of the oldest toppled in the torrential winds. Among the notable casualties was the great yew tree that stood in the Queen’s Grove, a nobly presiding evergreen rooted there since the days of Marie Antoinette.

Just five weeks prior to the storm, on a rare weekend outing from the rigors of culinary school, happy to escape heat of the kitchen and the grey confines of the city, I went to Versailles. Bundled up with a scarf beneath a leaden sky, I found strolling through the iconic gardens in the cool autumnal air to be more enjoyable than the palace itself. Dreaming of warm roasted chestnuts, I had ambled through the Queen’s grove and certainly passed the fated yew, never guessing its final days loomed near.

Chateau Laguiole corkscrew

After departing France in 2000, I was casually thumbing through some kitchenware catalog, as I recall, and happened across the advertisement for “The World’s Most Special Corkscrew.” Laguiole knives and corkscrews are known for their distinctive, gracefully curved handle and the signature Napoleonic bee affixed to the blade, each piece handmade by a single artisan. The authentic ones are engraved with the name of the forge (located in or near the village of Laguiole), distinguishing them from the abundance of cheap, mass produced knock-offs that exist.

In an effort to raise money for the post-storm restoration of the palace and gardens at Versailles, the wood from a few of the venerable, fallen trees was sold to businesses and artists for crafting into special items. And so it was that Château Laguiole, a maker of the iconic corkscrews and knives, purchased some portion of Marie Antoinette’s fallen yew to fashion into handles for a limited edition piece.

When I saw the offer for the corkscrew made from the 200+ year old tree, well, I was overcome with a very rare case of “have to have it.” To hell with the price. (Figure a dollar for each year the tree lived and you are pretty much on the mark.) It would be a very special memento of my culinary school adventure, never mind that I had managed to dodge the great storm, and it would remind me of France each time I opened a bottle of wine. Oh so practical. Its grain-leather, custom holster was simply an added bonus.

In a couple of earlier Soul Artist Journal posts, I have written about my fondness and deep appreciation for the space of a kitchen, its light and mood, and certainly the right tools. And I have shared previously that I count about ten favorite items in my baterie de cuisine, each one special to me in a unique way and carrying a story. A pleasure to use and hold, they are like old friends; the yew-handled Laguiole corkscrew most certainly resides among this special, “inner circle” group.

Crazy as it may sound given its story and irreplaceable origins, I often bring this corkscrew with me when I travel (though as we can no longer carry such things onboard an airplane, I stash it inside a shoe or someplace relatively obscure in my checked luggage). That’s how much pleasure it brings me. Not to mention that most people, even wine lovers I know, have rubbish wine openers that offer more trouble than they are worth—cheap and flimsy things with little redeeming value other than getting the cork out (if you work hard enough, have some skill or luck, or make sufficient prayers to Dionysus).

I know, it’s a bottle opener, not a pet. Perhaps I’m a bit too attached but I take the aesthetic of tools seriously. (Someday I’m likely to finally write a post about my dearest fountain pen, with which I’ve written every post, as well as my book manuscripts.) One of the things I most appreciate about cooking and being in the kitchen is the sensory, tactile experience of making something with my hands. As I have written elsewhere:

“A good meal brings pleasure on many levels. For one kind of cook, a significant part of that delight is the assembly of the meal itself; a sensory, creative process to be savored and enjoyed right down to the weighty heft of quality pans, the ease of sharp knives, and the feel of good tools in the hand. Each thing offers its own chant of beauty among the gathering.”

I’ve long ago replaced anything cheap or plastic in my kitchen (my entire house, for that matter) with items that feel well made, solid and durable; things that bring pleasure from their visual and kinesthetic appeal, their heft and texture in the hand. (Similarly, food should be beautiful and it deserves a good plate, linens, and the time to savor it unhurriedly at table.) I choose to leave a few chosen items out on the counter for a sense of what they contribute to the space—a roughly-hewn Thai mortar and pestle of green marble; a uniquely inlaid bamboo rolling pin; a rustic decanter for olive oil from a noted huilerie in France; a handcrafted ceramic bowl piled with local fruit—as an ongoing, shifting negotiation between decor and clutter, usefulness and style.

Tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I decided to open a bottle of wine. An indulgence and brief respite from my low-glycemic diet. The cool autumnal evening and the roasted duck demanded it.

Removing the corkscrew from its sturdy leather case and opening a worthwhile bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir, I once again appreciated the elegant lines and rustic appeal of the yew handle, the rippling of its grain. In a small way, a grand and noble tree lives on, still offering beauty. I savored the way it felt in my grip, praising the sharpness of the serrated blade for cutting through the ring of foil at the top of the bottle neck. Solid. Hand-crafted with pride of workmanship. As a once-beekeper (but now too nomadic), I adore the Napoleonic bee affixed to the spine. The wood’s finish has worn to a dull shine like dark honey, and my French one-of-a-kind, oh-so-practical objet d’art is a pleasure to hold and to use.

Regular readers of this journal know that I’m easily captivated by the small pleasures in the day. Those little human moments, where I’m suddenly deeply engrossed in the sensuality of the moment and how it feels—including what is in my hands—are simple celebrations of life. My dear fountain pen scrawling away on the pages of a notebook. The worn, French vegetable peeler as it denudes a potato. A sturdy wooden broom made with old-fashioned corn fibers as it sweeps the front porch and steps, whsssk, whsssk. My handmade elk hide drum. A master potter’s ceramic mug, uniquely glazed, filled with a steaming, fragrant brew and cradled in cupped palms.

Soul Artists know that life is not always art but there exists an art to living. We create and appreciate simple, daily rituals to tend the soul. Writing a poem. Nurturing the garden. Cooking an appealing meal and then sitting down to enjoy it with gratitude, friendship, laughter and love. A leisurely stroll though the neighborhood or surrounding landscape, our senses ajar. And we know that little could be more important than nourishing the bodysoul, or quiet time for inspiration and rest. As with making a proper cup of tea, even opening a bottle of wine can be a small ritual—appreciating the tool in the hand, the wine glasses, the liquid’s hue—or using any objects we’ve gathered in a sensual celebration of life.

As I have queried before, gentle reader, what is the art you make of your life? And what did you do for that art today? Here’s hoping that you possess a few special objects or tools that feel like old friends, ones that deliver a simple pleasure when using them—offering something more than mere functionality, and inviting you to mindfully appreciate the moment, even if fleeting. Beauty feeds the soul, my friend. Indeed, the simplest things are often the most beautiful.

Open your senses and celebrate.