May 1998 article in GQ Magazine!
-Elements of Style: Victory at Hand -
The Laguiole is a small triumph of French engineering
Not long ago, an extravagant and well-meaning friend presented me with what he called a state-of-the-art corkscrew. It was a most serious and impressive piece of equipment - large and beautifully made, with a leverage system guaranteed to extract the most reluctant cork. It was, I was told, a connoisseur's corkscrew. And yet not one cork has it pulled. It sits in its box, unused and unloved.
For an explanation of my apparent ingratitude, we need to go back a few years to a summer lunch in a small village house not far from Avignon in the South of France. I was the guest of Regis, a man who had kindly assumed responsibility for educating me in the pleasures of the table. Regis describes himself as a gourmet-gourmand-a knowledgeable and happily greedy enthusiast, alert to every nuance in a recipe or a bottle. Much of his adult life has been devoted to eating and drinking, and he has the stomach and the expertise to prove it.
Before getting down to the serious business of lunch, Regis decided that we should exercise our palates (the only form of exercise he ever takes willingly) by comparing the virtues of two white wines from the Cotes du Rhone: a young Condrieu and an older, fatter Hermitage. There they sat, side by side on the table, each bottle glistening with beads of chilled seat. Regis rubbed his hands as he looked at them and then flexed his fingers as though he were about to attack a piano. Reaching into a trouser pocket, he pulled out a corkscrew, which he unfolded with the delicacy of a man handling a rare and precious object.
I had never seen such a handsome corkscrew. It was based on the design of what is sometimes called the waiter's creet, engraved below it. "That," said Regis, "is the best corkscrew in the world." He poured two glasses of wine and grinned. "French, of course."
Laguiole, in the Aveyron region of southern France, is a town famous for knives. The ancestor of today's Laguiole corkscrew originated around 1880, following the arrival of the cork. (In fact, corks had been invented in the seventeenth century, but nothing happens at breakneck speed in southern France.) Over the years, refinements such as stainless steel have been incorporated into design, but little else has changed.
With both bottles showing signs of exhaustion, Regis reached for the heavy red Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we would be having later with cheese. "You see this?" he asked, pointing to the short blade of the corkscrew. "A serrated edge. It cuts the lead more cleanly, and it won't become blunt the way a straight edge does." He disposed of the capsule and pulled the cork. "Another thing," he said, wagging the cork and the corkscrew under my nose. "You will observe that this is a hollow, grooved screw that won't split the cork. Une Merveille. You must get one."
He suggested and expedition. It was one of those frivolous, seductive plans that make perfect sense when discussed over a long lunch. Together, said Regis, we would drive up to Laguiole and go shopping for my corkscrew, a purchase - no, an investment - that I would never regret. While we where there, it would be a grave oversight if we neglected to eat at the restaurant of Micel Bras, Laguiole's recent claim to fame.
Marinated in good wine as I was, the trip seemed like a most excellent idea, and I'm still not quite sure why we didn't go. Work intervened, I suppose, or perhaps, for his liver's sake, Regis went on one of his periodic cures at Evian. But I did eventually manage to acquire a Laguiole corkscrew, and it is everything I had hoped it would be: a pleasure to look at, a joy to handle, simple and invariably efficient. No cork can resist it. I take it with me when I travel, as the standard-issue corkscrew one finds in hotel rooms is a poor, clumsy thing. And one day I shall take it to Laguiole and try to find the man who made it.
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