Magazine article Geographical

Staying Power: Martin Symington Takes in the Beautiful Surroundings of a Traditional Herdade in the Alejento Region of Southern Portugal and Discovers Why the Rather Old-Fashioned Cork Industry Has Continued to Thrive in the Modern World

Magazine article Geographical

Staying Power: Martin Symington Takes in the Beautiful Surroundings of a Traditional Herdade in the Alejento Region of Southern Portugal and Discovers Why the Rather Old-Fashioned Cork Industry Has Continued to Thrive in the Modern World

Article excerpt

The dawn is pink as Luis Dias, proprietor of Herdade das Barradas da Serra, gazes towards the horizon and lifts his hands to feel for moisture in the air. It's decision time: to strip, or not to strip.

Sashes of morning mist isolate tree-crowned hillocks that rise from the plain, but a warm breeze is wafting from the east and the clouds are high and tattered. Luis takes his mobile phone from his pocket, dials and issues his command: 'Vamos tirarja'--'We are going to strip now."

Soon the troupe of 20 or so tiradors de cortica--cork strippers--arrive on a lorry that Luis directs along an earthen track that loops up to an area of hillside blanketed with trees whose bark was last harvested exactly a decade ago. No mechanical means of stripping cork bark has been invented, so the job is done by these highly skilled men.

First, they make vertical cuts down the bark with small axes. Then they lever it away in pieces as large as they can manage. The most skilful of them prise away a semi-circular husk that runs the length of the trunk from just above ground level to the first branches; smaller pieces are worth less. All morning, they continue cutting and loading the cork onto trailers, which a tractor will tow back to the farm.

There it will dry on the ground for about four months, before being taken to factories belonging to Portugal's big cork corporations, where it's boiled to kill any remaining insects. The corks for use as wine stoppers will later be punched out of the sheets, bleached or otherwise treated, graded according to texture and appearance, then bagged and sold.

ONE OF A KIND

The cork oak is an extraordinary tree. It probably developed its thick bark as a defence against forest fires. The bark insulates the tree like a coat wrapped around the trunk and Ganches. keeping the inside at a constant 20[degrees]C all year round. If the bark is stripped when it's too cold--or when the air is damp--the tree will be damaged, which is why Luis is so particular about deciding when to cut.

The bark has a unique cellular structure--with about 40 million cells per cubic centimetre--that technology has never succeeded in replicating. The cells are filled with air. which is why cork is so buoyant. It also has an elasticity that means you can squash it and watch it spring back to its original size and shape when you release the pressure.

Cork oaks grow in a number of Mediterranean countries, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco. They flourish in warm, sunny climates where there's a minimum of 400 millimetres of rain per year, and not more than 800 millimetres.

Like grape vines, the trees thrive in poor soil, putting down deep roots in search of moisture and nutrients. Sourthern Portugal's Alentejo region ticks all of these boxes, which explains why by the early 20th century, this region had become the world's largest producer of cork, and why today it accounts for roughly half of production around the world.

THE LONG GAME

After the morning's harvest, I sit down on the farmhouse verandah to sip a glass of chilled white wine with Luis and his wife. Elsa, surrounded by the sizzle of cicadas. 'To be a cork farmer, I have had to learn to be patient,' Luis says. 'This was the first thing my father taught me, and that my grandfather taught him.'

Herdade das Barradas da Serra, an 800-hectare estate that stretches out from the Grandola hills, was originally a gift from the king, and has been in the Dias family for five generations. 'From the planting of a cork sapling to the first harvest takes about 25 years,' Luis continues. 'But for top-quality cork suitable as stoppers for fine wine bottles, you have to wait a further 15 or 20 years. So when I plant a new cork tree, it isn't for my children--it's for my grandchildren. To have a cork farm is an agreement between generations.'

In fact, 53-year-old Luis isn't yet a grandfather, although his son, Francisco, currently a student in Lisbon, arrived for the weekend while I was there. …

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