Cork – planting for future generations

Plant one now so your grandchildren can enjoy it later. There’s no type of tree this principle applies to as much as the cork oak, the only tree whose bark can be harvested without killing it. Recyclable, reusable and 100% natural: all in all, cork is pretty eco-friendly.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016

Cork is the bark of the cork oak, Portugal’s national tree. In the country there are more than 736 thousand hectares of cork forests. Portugal’s future doesn’t only depend on the harvesting of cork, but also on maintaining the environmental biodiversity of its forests. Because besides their capacity to produce oxygen, which all trees do, cork oaks have a unique cell structure which enables them to retain CO2, the principle cause of global warming.

Portugal is responsible for the production of more than 50% of cork consumed in the world. It plays a big role in the lives of the Portuguese people, especially those living in São Brás which was once the centre of the cork producing industry with over 80 factories. Nowadays, the majority of the industry has moved to the centre of the country, but there are still ten factories left in the area.

 

Unforgettable smell

Also the memories remain. “I will never forget the special smell of cork when it’s boiled,” says owner of Algarve Rotas Sofia Carrusca (34). She means that in a good way: “It’s magic!” Sofia was born in São Brás, into a family who has been working with cork for three generations.

“It has been present in my life since the moment I was born. When I was younger, my parents’ house was located between two cork factories; I could be found in one of them almost every single day. To me, the cork tree represents our heritage, sustainability and respect for the environment. It’s a wonderful product. It comes from the nature, but unlike wood, you don’t need to kill the tree when harvesting it.”

 

Not completely naked

The national tree is certainly respected in Portugal. There are strong protection laws; cutting a cork oak without permission is forbidden. Harvesting is first done when the Quercus suber (that’s its scientific name) has reached adulthood, after 25 to 30 years. From then, every nine years, a layer of cork is taken off without touching the trunk, by using a traditional axe. Only the most experienced craftsmen are allowed to do this. Debarking is only done in the summer months, when temperatures are over 35˚C – any colder and the bark sticks to the trunk like glue.

“It’s like undressing the tree. You take the bark, some items of clothing, but you never completely undress it, for else it would be left naked,” explains Sofia. The personification of cork isn’t uncommon in Portugal and can be seen as a sign of respect. Sofia: “A farmer once told me that cork trees must be female. Like a woman needs nine months to have a child, the oak needs nine years in order to give us the cork.” Unlike most women, the cork tree just keeps producing cork during its lifetime. Its enormous capacity for regeneration means that it will renovate the bark, and despite cork being stripped off at nine-year intervals, the tree can live up to 250 years.

 

From wine stopper to surfboard

The first and second harvest produce rough cork, which is mainly used as isolation material or made into granules, whereas the smoother bark after the third and all other times is ideal for wine stoppers. The only exception being sparkling wines. They need a stopper made out of cork granules, as a stopper made out of a single cork piece would allow the gas to escape. (Use granulated stoppers in other high quality wines and any expert will taste the difference. Don’t even think about using plastic stoppers – they’ll spit it out). In São Brás, all cork stoppers get recycled in special bins.

The fact that cork can be recycled makes it into an ecological product. “That’s important, especially in today’s society where we already use so many materials only once before throwing them away,” says Sofia, who has seen a recent rise of people interested in cork, from golf bag designers to surfboard makers. Naturally, they all want to work with the smooth cork which is produced about 50 years after the tree was planted. “All the bark we take now, has already been planted by our ancestors,” explains Sofia. “In Portugal we have this old saying, which is still relevant: ‘Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren’.”

 

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016

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