Hundreds of years ago Toledo steel earned an enduring reputation from the fine blades used by Spanish soldiers and knights on the battlefield. Today Spain still has many knife making areas. The village of Taramundi is particularly well known for its cutlery, which includes hunting knives.
Spain has a strong hunting culture. One manifestation of that is an active range of knife makers. In addition to industrial scale manufacturers there is also a good selection of boutique custom makers. The village of Taramundi is devoted to such blade smiths. The village is located in the Cantabrian Mountains of the Asturias province in north western Spain. It has for centuries been the home of cutlers and sword smiths.
During a long, meandering road trip through the smaller villages and rural back roads of Spain and Portugal we eventually found ourselves in close proximity to Taramundi. We took a pleasant rural bed and breakfast at a nearby village. Like most rural homes in Spain there was a substantial, carefully tended vegetable garden running up to the house. I noted a low, knee-high electric fence around the garden.
I casually asked the old gentleman who showed us around if that was to keep his neighbour’s sheep and goats out. With an equally casual answer he waved his hand in the direction of the forest a few hundred metres away and replied that it was to keep out the wild boar and deer that came out of the forest every night. Now, that was interesting. Late in the day we strolled a few kilometres along the narrow country lanes, past many small farms. Every damp patch of roadside soil had fresh pig and deer tracks.
The next morning, as I cleaned my teeth prior to setting off for the nearby Taramundi, I glanced out the bathroom window. Lo and behold, there was a doe Roe Deer about sixty metres away, brazenly nibbling the spring shoots off our host’s apple trees. At dinner the previous evening the restaurant featured some imposing Red Deer racks and an array of mounted boar tusks, which the waiter proudly assured us were all locally taken.
What a pleasure to be in a society where hunting remains a widespread and valued part of the culture. I had high expectations that such an appreciation of hunting would be reflected in the work of the local knife makers. I am not short of good hunting knives, but can always find room for another, especially one acquired from an interesting place like Taramundi.
While there was a wealth of eye-catching traditional Spanish knife designs, I was looking for what has become a standard for me in a hunting knife. That is, a fixed blade of about 120 to 150 mm length, made from high carbon steel that sharpens easily and holds a good edge. The blade could be either a drop point or straight; I would use either for skinning and boning. A generous handle with traditional horn or antler grips and a deep enclosing leather sheath were also requirements. I was not looking for a beautifully finished custom blade but rather a handmade working knife, maybe a little rough around the edges even.
The Bladesmiths of la cuchilleria de Taramundi
In Taramundi I first visited the hilltop workshop of la cuchilleria de Taramundi. Here there were four cutlers busy making a variety of knife designs in a modern workshop. At the counter, I inspected a variety of knives until my eye caught sight of a promising looking specimen in a display case. I liked the feel and balance of the knife and asked a few technical questions about it. The proprietor kindly called out to the bladesmith who had made it and he came over.
It was a full tang fixed blade, made from high chromium and vanadium stainless steel, with polished stag horn grip. The craftsman, Manuel Quinteza, told me that he made a few such blades to order for customers and tried to keep one or two such knives on display for people like me. The bulk of his, and the shop’s, work was in making the traditional folding Spanish knives. A glance at the workshop confirmed this. After some more discussion, I bought the knife and its accompanying leather sheath for 75 Euros, which is about one hundred Australian dollars. Visit the website www.cuchilleriataramundi.com to see their full catalogue.
Taramundi Bladesmith Antonio Diaz
Some enquiries in the small village of Taramundi led us to seek out an old stone hut perched on the side of the steep hill, a kilometre or two out of town. Here we met the sole worker, the affable Antonio Diaz, and spent several hours in his small, rustic workshop.
He told us that there were about twenty knife makers in the immediate area and that only five still made their knives entirely by hand, like him. As we talked he set about making a small folder from scratch. Scooping up a handful of wood shavings from the dirt floor of his shed, he placed those into the forge and turned on the air blower. While the forge flared and came up to temperature he placed a short length of beech branch in his lathe.
With some deft movements and a shower of trimmings, he quickly reduced the diameter of the wood and shaped it to that required for the knife. A few minutes work with file and knife had the handle shaped to Antonio’s satisfaction. The red-hot blade was pulled from the forge and a series of quick hammer blows had it taking its final shape. As the red heat faded the blade was placed back into the forge to reheat for further hammering. The fingernail slot and maker’s mark were stamped into the glowing blade as the final part of the forging process.
Antonio used his files to roughly shape the blade before moving between the big stone wheel and linishing belt. The blade was also drilled for the pivot pin. Once the blade was in nearly complete final form it was returned to the forge to reheat. The glowing blade was clamped into a holder and plunged into the tempering bath. Following a brief dunking Antonio withdrew the cooled blade and inspected it carefully. Satisfied with its shape he put it aside and returned to the handle.
He carved a few feature grooves into the wood and sanded the handle once more. Smoke billowed as a bar of red-hot steel was used to smear molten amber resin into the timber. Antonio then fitted the steel lower half of the handle and pinned in the blade. He spent some time tweaking the fitted blade to get smooth opening and closure. The blade was then sharpened to a razor-like edge. After buffing all the steel work the wooden handle was coated with a lacquer made from resin dissolved in alcohol. While the varnish was drying we chatted and inspected some other knives.
Like the other Taramundi bladesmiths, Antonio makes mostly classic Spanish folders. Luckily he had a couple of fixed blade hunting knives and I bought one of those together with a leather sheath. The cost of that was fifty Euros, about seventy-five Aussie dollars. All his knives are made from high carbon steel. He gave the hunter a quick touch-up and checked the sharpness by slicing thin slivers off a piece of newspaper – perfect!
The varnished folding knife dried quickly. Antonio fitted a label and wiped the knife over before closing it and placing it in its box. The cost was a very modest fifteen Euros. I left the stacked-stone old shed feeling very happy. It had been a pleasant and most interesting couple of hours. I had acquired a couple of highly serviceable knives, one of which I had seen made in its entirety. The friendly Antonio had been generous with his time and happily demonstrated his knife making skills.
For anyone interested in buying one of Antonio’s knives, you will have to make a trip to Spain! He does have a website (www.antoniodiaznavajas.es) but only sells his knives locally. However, there are many other Taramundi knife makers who are available internationally, as a web search will quickly demonstrate. Apart from good basic knives like I have just described there are many options, right up to expensive custom knives.
In an age where more and more items are mass produced out of China, it is nice to know that you can still find a few craftsmen working to traditional methods in a culture that embraces and celebrates hunting.