Letter from Portugal: Cork Harvest 2017

Letter from Portugal: Cork Harvest 2017

End of July, and the cork-harvesting season is coming to an end in the searing, dry heat of southern Portugal. Witnessing this time-old tradition is a fascinating process.

First there are the majestic cork oaks (quercus suber) which form forests in the undulating plains and the gentle slopes of a landscape of which the cork trees are an integral part of the biosphere. They grow wild, broad-trunked with a fine spread of gnarled branches under which a bit of shade can be found, respite to the intense sun.

The soils is sandy, and drains easily. Two men approach a tree, one the more experienced cork-stripper and the other one being prepared in this traditional skill. These are known as descortiçadores, the cork harvesters who have been doing this work for generations.

In their hands, the machada, a long-stemmed axe not unlike those so accurately used by North American Indians to inflict painful damage to the bodies of tough-talking cowboys. The machada is razor sharp, so while the process of stripping the bark from the cork tree appears to be a calm, quiet one, these guys need to have their wits about them if they wish to keep their hands and fingers.

Using admirable techniques that would impress a zen sushi master, deep grooves are sliced into the bark, cutting down to the wood. The tool is then edged between wood and bark and the cork is peeled off in a thick concave strip. These strips are between three and five meters long and are the origins of the natural product used for wine bottle stoppers and a wide range of other applications. It takes a team about 20 minutes to strip a tree, and a mature oak will deliver around 60kg of cork bark.

Placing one’s hand on the just-stripped tree, you feel cool, slightly moist wood. Smooth as marble. This wood is now left for nine years before the next coat of bark has grown and reached the thickness and density required by the cork producers.

It is a natural, unhindered process. The strips of bark are stacked and head off for one of the Amorim production plants in the vicinity of Coruche where they are turned in that natural cylinder that has for centuries been the true partner to a bottle of fine wine.