On a farm in West Cork in Ireland, surrounded by a frenzy of pigs, cows, and chickens, is where Fingal Ferguson makes world-class handcrafted chef's knives. His improvised workshop at the back of a cattle shed may seem ramshackle, but his knives are things of rare beauty. They have patterned firework finishings on their blades and carved handles from buffalo horn, antlers, or reclaimed wood: apple, tamarind, rosewood, bog oak. Watching awestruck chefs peruse Fingal's collection of weaponry is like watching Rambo at a gun show.
"Fingal's knives have a great aesthetic," says chef Lee Tiernan from London. "He uses unusual materials for the handles, makes each knife unique, and takes every detail into consideration. It's genius. The quality of Fingal's knives mirror everything else he turns his hands to."
Fingal also turns his hands to making salamis, hams, and sausages at the smokehouse that is part of the Ferguson family farm, Gubbeen, on the most southwesterly tip of Ireland. Fingal is a farmer, butcher, knifemaker, and chef—the kind of rural Renaissance man that makes us city-dwellers feel like incompetent fools.
As a child, Fingal inherited his uncle's knife collection and initially treated it with careless abandon, playing around and throwing the knives at trees. "I was just doing silly boys' stuff," says Fingal. Later on, he became intrigued by their craftsmanship, so he learned how to fix the knives himself and how to make them. He has made more than 300 knives, all with customised designs that can take days to complete. The waiting list of chefs is ever-growing.
On the hay-covered floor of the knife workshop stand grinding benches, a buffer, and a kiln for heat-treating the steel. "What you are looking for is great grain structure," says Fingal. "If you snap the blade in half it should be very fine. If you have done a bad heat treatment you will see little dots and lines. The finer the grain structure, the finer you can sharpen it."
Wearing a brown suede apron and a ventilation mask that looks like something out of Ghostbusters, Fingal is grinding a knife crafted from Swedish AEB-L stainless steel. The handle is made from 7,000-year-old Irish bog oak which was given to Fingal by a friend and fellow knifemaker Rory Conner, whom he credits as a mentor. On the handle is a distinct Fingal trademark: a small-angled step, behind which you can tuck one or two fingers to find the right balance. "It's almost like you would hold a pencil," says Fingal. "It kind of stops your fingers going further up the blade so you don't get blisters, which often happens to me. It's ergonomic, but I wouldn't complicate the design any further; it just feels comfortable in your hand."
Comfort, control, sharpness, and quality of the steel are things to look out for in a knife. Its weight, says Fingal, should match its purpose. "A Japanese-style santoku knife must be light and nimble; a European chef's knife must be firm enough to strike a bone without fear but light enough for plenty of use. The handle material should be attractive, and as versatile and strong as unobtanium."
He uses a coarse belt on the grinder to shape the blade and straighten out any twists and warps that may have occurred during heat treatment. It's all done in rhythmic, gentle steps ("You can make one little mistake that will take ages to undo"), turning the blade around the belt, dipping it into water, checking the surface of the knife, resting the back of the blade on his finger to find the right balance. It's like watching a chef carefully sculpt a dish: one tweezer pinch, one drop of sauce, one leaf at a time. The nail on Fingal's left index finger is bruised but all digits are intact. Just don't ask him to unlock his iPhone with the thumb. "I've programmed three fingers into my phone and none of them work now because my fingers are always changing."
A turkey walks by to have a look in the shed as the sound of grinding metal is punctured by hungry pigs and cackling birds.
The Gubbeen farm has belonged to the Fergusons for six generations. Today, they produce award-winning cheeses and charcuterie, and the whole family is involved. Fingal manages the smokehouse, his dad farms the land, his mom makes its famous farmhouse cheese, and his sister looks after the biodynamic vegetable garden. It's full-circle: The cow's milk is used to make cheese and the pigs end up as salami and chorizo. Sometimes the pigs are fed the leftover milk whey, which Fingal's sister, Clovisse, is also planning to distill into gin. It's easy to glamorize farm life, but spending a day at Gubbeen is a rewarding tonic for the soul.
Fingal's house, which he shares with his wife and four sons, is located at the top of the fields where the cows graze in the morning and where you have panoramic views of the undulating farm land, the rocky coastline, and the familiar-sounding islands dotted around the Atlantic Sea (Coney Island, Long Island, Baltimore—the last thing Irish immigrants saw before they headed for America). For our dinner, Fingal digs a hole in the field, lights a fire, and ties a spreadeagled hogget—bathed in butter, beaten with rosemary twigs—on a Patagonian cross. The lamb comes from another local farm belonging to Tomi Ungerer, the celebrated illustrator who makes children's books as well as erotic drawings. Multitasking seems to come easy to the good people of West Cork.
Back in the work shed, Fingal fits the bog oak wood handles with two-part epoxy and Loveless bolts before grinding it down to fit the blade. Although the initial knife shape is drawn in marker pen on a piece of metal sheet, the final finessing is Fingal's freestyle. What goes through his mind when he spends hours on an arduous process that requires so much concentration? "It can be a wonderful source of relaxation but also aggravation. You go through the next steps in your head, and the thing is that you can always take more off, but you can't put more back on again. You are always making sure that you don't make the blade too thin. You are slowly edging towards the vision you have in your head of what you want the knife to look like."
After one more polish on the buffing machine, he holds the knife up against the light. "It feels good," he says. "Now, for the finishing touch …" He puts a sticker on the blade with a cutout of his logo—three knives entangled to form the letter F—and rigs up a car battery charger. Next to the charger sits a speckled hen which hasn't moved an inch all day, despite metal sparks flying from the grinder. She's been too busy laying eggs on the work bench.
Fingal attaches the positive cable to the steel blade and the negative to a cotton bud soaked in etching fluid which he dabs onto the logo shape. As electricity passes back and forth, the electrolysis removes little bits of metal and etches the letter into the blade.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in July, 2015.