‘This is the one a contadino uses every day, for killing animals, sheep, goats, for cutting and chopping, too. It’s a general purpose knife, says Vittorio Mura. Vittorio Mura makes knives, traditional Sardinian knives. He made them all his life. He’s in his 60s now, bespectacled, with an impressive head of dark wavy hair and the slightly weary expression of someone who has seen a great deal of life. The workshop of Vittorio Mura e Figli in Santu Lissurgiu, a small town at the foot of Monte Ferru south of Alghero, is a large open space, cluttered with work benches and well-used bits of machinery. Everything has a dull, gunmetal patina from a thin layer of metal dust and fine oil.
‘Then this one, with a heavier, rounded blade is for skinning. Wild boar, pigs, sheep. And this one looks like an old fashioned razor, but it’s for cutting the bark off cork trees and shaping the corks.’
The Sage of Bra once explained to me that when you sit down to a meal in the house of a Sardinian, there’s never a knifeg laid by you plate because every self-respecting Sardinian carries his or her own. Knives have a central part in Sardinian cultural life, but progress being what it is , Vittorio Mura e Figli is one of the diminishing number of traditional Sardinian knife makers. Tradition means making your own blades, heating up the steel tang in a forge, thinning and shaping it with a hammer until it is fine enough to start the sharpening and polishing process. Finally the glittering blade is fitted into the handle.
‘The best handles are made from mufflone,’ says Vittorio. Mufflone are wild sheep that wander the thickly wooded mountains above Santu Lussurgiu. ‘You can also use cattle horn and wood, but mufflone is best. The cattle horn will flake after a while, and wood will fall apart eventually. But mufflone lasts forever.’ He brings out two massive knives. One is 160 years old, and the other 200. The handles are smooth with use, and have gone creamy amber.The blades are heavy and dark, and sharp enough to take off the head of a wild boar without much trouble.
Vittorio goes on to explain the difference between stainless and carbon steel. Carbon is the traditional material, and takes a better edge in his view. But then there are additional refinements to metal work. He brings out a blade with a brilliant sheen and looks as if there was oil moving on its surface. His eyes glow with pleasure at the sight of it.
‘Damascene steel, the finest of all.’ He runs his fingers up and down the blade.’ It’s made by beating layers of stainless and carbon steel together, folding them over and beating them again, many times. That why the blade has these patterns in it. It’s beautiful, strong and very sharp. A real knife.It takes a lot of hours to make such a knife.’
The Mura family have been making Sardinian knives for generations. He began learning his trade when he was a child, he says. “I’d come here after school. It’s a real craft making good knives. It takes discipline and concentration. I am a knife-maker. That’s what I am.’ He’s pleased that his son has joined him and his brothers, although he worries that he may have started too late.’He went to university. He’s a got a degree. But there’s no work for boys with degrees, so he’s come to join me here. But he’s old to start learning this craft. You have to know, understand, so many things.’