The knife loomed giant, menacing in his meager, pasty paw. With his posh British accent, he instructed me to hold it; taking care to notice the weight, the lines, the feel in the hand. He had shown me at least two-dozen knives, the choices beginning to blur, until I picked up the final piece of cutlery displayed on the black oilcloth.
I returned to the London shop three times, checking my gut to confirm that it was indeed, the piece of iron that would make me warm and weak-kneed in the kitchen, and confirming my bank balance to ensure I could afford such extravagance encased in carbon steel.
The Saji Santoku knife is handmade, each of its forty-five layers of Aogami steel hammer forged in traditional Japanese fashion. The knife is given a Kuro Uchi (Black Hammer) finish; after the forging process, the black oxidised layer of steel is left on the blade and sealed with natural resin. The result is a rustic, almost primitive aesthetic, which also helps to slow down the steel’s oxidation process. In Japanese, Aogami translates as ‘Blue Steel’, boasting a blue tinge from the alloying elements in its composition.
The master behind the blade is Takeshi Saji who, at 14 years of age, began a knifemaking apprenticeship with his uncle, a revered knifesmith. Born in 1958 in Takefu, Saji’s hometown has been a knifemaking hub for more than seven-hundred years, ranking among the four most important knife producing regions in the world; a prefectural storm of purity of iron, clarity of spring water, and highest grade of pine charcoal. Acknowledged for his unique talents, Saji was awarded the ‘Traditional Craftsman’ title, and The Ministry of Culture honoured him as a ‘Living Treasure’ of Japan, the youngest person ever to receive the honor.
And of course, the blade’s handle has its own story. Made from Arizona Desert Ironwood (Olneya Tesota), it’s one of the world’s oldest living things, with several surviving trees germinated in the 4th century. It is rare, expensive and highly stable. Olneya Tesota is the only species in the genus Olneya, has no close relatives, and grows exclusively in the Sonoran desert straddling the Arizona/Mexico border. Known as a nurse-plant, more than 500 other species (some unique to Sonora) depend upon the desert ironwood tree for survival. While the living trees are highly protected, licensed professionals are allowed to collect timber from dead desert trees, the wood incredibly well preserved thanks to the extreme environs.
Liberating the knife from a fancy linen bag too precious for its rough-hewn blade, I rinsed two-dozen Early Girl tomatoes plucked ripe and warm from the garden. Setting aside the usual serrated tomato knife, I took notice of the Santoku shape of the Saji knife’s blade, which translates from the Japanese as ‘three virtues’: a multipurpose tool to slice from the tip, dice from the center, and mince at the heel. I quartered the tomatoes with ease, diced the pork for the meatballs and minced Purple Stripe garlic cloves to sprinkle over everything. I was mesmerized. Immediately I dried the knife, ensuring no rust spots and replaced her in the linen bag, now deemed just barely swank enough for such artistry.