The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.
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This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.
Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.
Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.
In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.
The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!
Skill and strength
Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.
As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”
As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.
Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:
First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)
Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.
Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.
The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.
Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR