Strawberries and spoons

Decorated spoons from the Pays de Léon, in NW Brittany

There is a particular style of decorated spoons from a small area of NW Brittany centred around the small town of Plougastel-Daoulas. This lies within the old diocese of St Pol de Léon. St Pol de Léon is a fascinating small town with a big cathederal, near the ferry port of Roscoff, and which is the origin of the area name: le Pays de Léon. 

The spoons from around Plougastel-Daoulas are very distinctive. They differ in three main respects from the other styles of traditional Breton spoons. Firstly, they are invariably one-piece spoons, unlike the other main Breton traditions of spoon making, in which about half are folding spoons. Secondly, the spoons are usually a fairly basic but elegant shape. They tend to have a distinct crank and a pronounced keel, and they lack the elaborate cut-outs and piercings seen in other breton spoons.
Thirdly, these spoons tend to be very richly decorated with inlays of coloured wax - often on the sides and the backs of the handles. In addition, the fronts of the handles commonly have patterns of pewter inlay.

Plougastel-Daoulas itself is famous for two things: growing strawberries and a (recently revived) tradition of group marriages. Around the end of the 19th century, until the first world war it was common for between 20 and 30 couples to get wed on the same day, usually the first Tuedsay in the second half of January - la Fête du Maërl

Understandably, there were not enough spoons to provide for all the guests, so each brought their own spoon to the feast. This was the chance to show-off the beautiful decorated ‘cuillères d’apparat’ of the region.

In effect, competitive spoonage.

One of these Pays de Léon spoons has particularly fascinated me since i first saw it in Quimper museum archives back in February this year. I even keep a picture of it with me as a background on my phone. 

The metal inlay is  beautifully applied, and has not succumbed to the usual problems of mixing two media, pewter and box wood, each with a different coefficient of expansion. So often the pewter becomes loose and is lifted up, out of the spoon handle where it often becomes broken. Happily, this one remains as solidly seated as the day it was made.  It depicts an ostensoir (monstrance) topping-off an outline that encloses semi-circles and a saltire cross.

The predominantly red wax inlay is so finely applied it takes a jeweller’s loupe to see it clearly. The patterns are the usual lines and triangles, built up into rosettes and zig-zags. This spoon has rarely-seen motifs of thin parallel lines arranged within triangles, best seen in the centre rosette on the reverse of the handle.

The sides of the handle are inlaid with diamond shapes enclosed within thin concentric diamonds, all within parallel saw-tooth borders!

My fascination with this spoon has prompted me to attempt to make one in the same style, using similar decorative motifs.  As I was recently given some big pieces of fresh box wood I have been able to make a one-piece spoon that had the potential to be decorated with this enormous amount of detail. The pictures of my spoon are shown here.

As I haven’t yet attempted pewter inlay, I decided to ‘cheat’ and substitute a pattern in grey wax. This is a bit of a get-out, but its a technique I'm comfortable with.

Making this has really given me even more admiration for the phenomenal skill of the old spoon makers. Even using box wood and a very fine chip carving knife I have not been able to reproduce the fineness of the chip-carving of the original. I got closer on the back of the spoon, but I’ll need quite a lot more practice yet.  I'm not trying to be hard on myself, I'm simply in awe of the original!

It has recently been suggested to me that this pattern may have been cut using engraving tools.

This is an idea that I’m going to try, when I can get hold of some suitable tools.

Watch this space!
In the meantime, this spoon and one other are available for sale and have been uploaded onto my website:  le chat qui lit


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