Every nine years, bark is stripped by hand from the trunks of cork oaks and used for everything from wine corks to shoes.
Blow after blow, Joaquim Cala sinks his axe into the gnarled, lichen-covered trunk.
He’s been working in the Serra d’Ossa hills since dawn and has hours of toil ahead before the afternoon sun pushes temperatures over 95 Fahrenheit and forces his team to stop for the day.’
“It’s a tough job, but you have to take work where you find it,” says Cala, a wiry 61-year-old, whose inked upper-arm tattoo recalls his service in Portugal’s colonial wars back in the 1970s.
“This is too tough for youngsters. They don’t want to learn these skills,” he says, levering off a long strip of bark to reveal the cork oak’s brick-red core.
Cala belongs to a gang of skilled cork cutters, one of many that roam from farm to farm across Portugal’s southern Alentejo region through late spring and summer to strip bark from cork trees scattered across the sun-baked plains.
Cork production has been vital to the rural economy here for centuries. But, although manual bark stripping is little changed, this ancient industry is being forced to transform as its traditional reliance on supplying stoppers for the world’s wine bottles is undermined by the rise of screw tops and plastic bungs.
“Until the industry can find a way of diversifying, plastics and twist tops are always going to be for us a huge threat,” says Philip Mollet, the farmer whose family’s trees Cala’s team is stripping.
“In 2004 it really started to hit us,” he says. “Up until then, if people said to me ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’ I’d say ‘Yeah, it does.’”
Cork oak is unique among trees. The axe blows from Cala and his buddies may look destructive, but removing the bark actually keeps the oaks healthy. Their cork skin gradually grows back and is ready for harvesting every nine years. In fact, failure to strip the bark will stunt the trees’ growth.
With cork forests covering almost 2 million acres, Portugal is the world’s largest producer, providing almost half of all cork.
Mollet comes from an old Anglo-Portuguese family that has been in the cork business for generations, their product popping from bottles of fine French Champagne. Over a breakfast of freshly baked bread in his 200-year-old farmhouse, Mollet explains the impact of the wine world’s flirtation with plastic and metal stoppers.
Cork’s supporters say the natural, environmentally friendly stoppers allow wines to breathe, ensuring that they improve while aging – plus give a certain cachet with the unique sound of cork leaving bottle. However, the increasingly popular synthetic alternatives can be cheaper and provide better protection from TCA, the chemical that causes wines to develop an unwanted “corked” taste.
In 2004, Mollet was getting $160,000 for the 45 tons of cork his farm produces each year. Four years later, that had tumbled to just $47,000 for the same amount. Although cork has recovered some ground, he says the price is still barely half the level of a decade ago.
“We’re still living very much in the hope that it’s going to make a comeback. We owe it to our ancestors, but a lot of people are giving up, neglecting their forests,” Mollet says. “The damage to the forests is irreversible.”
Other than stunting the tree’s life cycle, Mollet sees a bigger problem when the undergrowth of neglected forests is not trimmed every few years: Insect pests can thrive, leaving the oaks vulnerable to disease.
That’s bad on all sorts of levels, undermining a rural way of life and endangering the rich forest ecosystem. The World Wildlife Fund says the cork forest landscape is among the most biodiverse in the world. The trees are vital for water retention, soil conservation and carbon storage.
The cork forest also supports an array of animal life, providing shelter for cranes, vultures and kites that migrate between Africa and Europe. Unique resident species include the rare Iberian imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx – the world’s most endangered feline.
To stop the rot, Portugal’s cork industry has been seeking alternative uses beyond bottle stoppers. Lightweight, pliable and a natural insulator, cork is now being used in applications that range from floor tiles to oil spill absorbents to the Mars Rover spacecraft heat shields. Last year, an eco-hotel clad in insulating cork opened near the Alentejo region’s (UNESCO World Heritage-rated) capital Á‰vora. Factories around Portugal turn out cork accessories that range from tacky tourist trinkets to polished hats, belts and even umbrellas. Acting as a natural cushion, cork heels and soles have been used in the footwear industry for centuries.
Portuguese designers have begun to exploit cork’s high fashion potential. “We are developing a new culture for cork,” says Sandra Correia, founder of Pelcor, a Portuguese company whose stylish collections of handbags, clutches and other accessories have taken cork decidedly upmarket.
Her flagship Lisbon store is filled with goods blending soft natural cork skin with leather and textiles to create cool contrasts of tone and texture. The current bestseller is the Iris Handbag that combines a mix of cork with leather details in a finished product that she describes as “trendy, feminine and distinct.”
Other winners include notepads covered with cork imitating snakeskin, and totes made from natural-toned cork and bright canvas, available in shades of lemon, turquoise and blushing pink.
Pelcor’s raspberry-colored cork covers for iPads with matching cork shopping bags were showcased at the MoMA Design Store in 2010. When Lisbon hosted a NATO summit in 2010, Pelcor supplied the gifts: German Chancellor Angela Merkel got a handbag, and President Obama received cork collars for his Portuguese water dogs.
Correia followed her father and grandfather into the cork business. The family business has its own cork forests and buys in from other farmers to supply its factory. “The factory still makes Champagne corks, but that was my father’s dream, not mine,” she says. “I’m a woman in a man’s industry and I wanted to do something different.”
Pelcor exports 45 percent of its production, mainly to the U.S., with customers stretching from Boston to Hawaii. Correia dreams of one day opening her own stores in Manhattan and Los Angeles. Besides the style, she says, U.S. customers are wooed by cork’s environmental credentials.
“The great meaning in the use of cork is that it comes direct from the tree, so when you buy it, you are contributing’to the sustainability of the cork forest, giving life and sustainability to the trees, fighting global warming.”
As a collecter of working knives and axes I would very much like to know where I might purchase a machada,Cork harvesting axe.