The doctor in the emergency department said yes, she did own a mandoline but no, she hadn’t taken it out of the box “because, you know, fingers”. This said as she gently washed the blood from my little finger to better see just how much damage the viciously sharp blade had inflicted. Two hours into her Saturday night shift and the young doctor was upbeat. “It looks nice and quiet out there,” she said of the waiting room which was packed and threatened to spill over into the “temporary” Portakabin waiting area outside. Which goes to show these things are relative.
For days afterwards going around with an almost comically large bandage on my little finger, my answer to the inevitable “what happened?” question typically got just beyond “courgettes for dinner” but was halted by howls of pained anguish from the questioner at the mention of the word “mandoline”. Though there was at least one person – someone for whom the fashion for television programme-inspired, stupidly fancy home cooking had happily passed by - who thought there was a musical instrument involved and that I had gone quite mad. When I explained what a mandoline is, she too shrieked in a way I was beginning to find quite satisfying.
Mandolines come in many designs though all have the same basic feature: a flat rectangular surface at the end of which is a single, razor-sharp fixed blade. The idea is to run the vegetable along the flat part, through the blade, producing evenly cut slices. A safety gizmo keeps fingers a fair distance from the blade – that’s if you use it, instead of for some irrational reason decide it’s only a courgette and really what’s the worst that could happen. Prices vary, the more professional tend to be stainless steel, mine being plastic was on the cheap end of the scale – which meant binning it on return from the hospital seven hours later an easy decision.
Indeed it would be better - because it would serve as a doom-laden warning - if the voguish kitchen accoutrement was called after the instrument that inspired it. In 18th-century France, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin gave his name to what was popularly called “Madame la Guillotine”. He didn’t invent the efficient neck slicer but as a man opposed to the death penalty he promoted it, reasoning that if the death penalty was to stay on the statute books then a swift simple method was preferable. And when compared with burning alive, drowning or quartering he had a point – also, as an egalitarian, he was keen that there should be one method for all; that aristocrats shouldn’t have the option of a swift execution by sword.
It’s said that, inspired by the instrument that bore his name, he created what has become a food slicer as a sort of novelty and named it after his lover. Ironically given the fate that would later befall her, the queen, Marie Antoinette, took such a fancy to its miniature cuteness that she ordered several for doll executions (such fun!). After her death some were rescued and survived until, kitchenalia lore has it that well over a century later an underling in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna came across one. While cleaning it, he chopped off his finger but his head-chef boss, seeing its potential took to using it, making thinly sliced vegetables part of what TV food programmes would call “his signature dish”. By the late 19th century thin-cut vegetables were seen at the top tables across Europe and considered classy and sophisticated. The 1877 Book of the Table, links the popularity of such fine cuts – more expert chefs used a knife - to a recipe for “Julienne Soup” which was finished with thinly-sliced vegetables.
There’s a version of the gadget called a “Japanese mandoline” which surely didn’t originate in the French Revolution so, like most things, time may have blunted its origins.
Cooking forums on the internet abound with mandoline horror stories – from tips of fingers that had to picked out of shredded carrot to kitchen countertops so blood spattered they looked like a crime scene. That sort of thing.
In this paper last year the popular – and wise – chef Neven Maguire when asked for a favourite kitchen gadget included a mandoline – though he stipulated it should have a safety guard. Indeed they feature regularly in such articles; London-based Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton has said it was one gadget he can’t live without “for extra thin slicing”; and some years ago on the BBC’s popular – and usually cheerfully uncontroversial - Saturday Kitchen programme viewers live-tweeted their horrified reaction to Scottish chef Pam Brunton using a mandoline without a safety guard, chatting away and not seeming to even glance down at the glinting blade which at any moment, viewers tweet-shrieked, could take at least one digit away. Indeed the only one that was completely non-plussed by culinary mishap was my friend whose daughter worked in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant and who considered going to the hospital with a mandoline cut a luxury. In her daughter’s workplace unless there was bone glinting through the bloody gore, a quick clean up, a plaster and back to work was the way it was dealt with because it was such a regular occurrence.