At the beginning of every summer, with the rise of the sun, groups of workers roam the Extremadurian countryside following a very ancient tradition: the extraction of cork. To this day, it has to be done by hand, with the sole help of an ax. Everything about this activity sounds antique: the jargon used, the weight measures, and so on. Despite that, the cork business is a big deal in Extremadura: it is one of the three regions that produce most of it in Spain, and Spain is the second world’s biggest producer. The capital of cork is San Vicente de Alcántara, which is very close to Portugal, the first worldwide producer.
I really wanted to write this story because the extraction of cork was a huge event in my family. It only occurs every nine years: that is the time that it takes for the cork to grow back to its perfect size, which is the length of a corked bottle. It all starts with the drawing of the contract: you need to agree on the price for every “quintal” (46 kgs) of cork. The “quintal” is a very antique measure of weight: it comes from the Syriac word “qintár,” and it dates back to our Moorish times (from VIIIth to XVth century).
For three days, all the family would move to our little cottage in the countryside - children, parents, grandparents. We all had to help out! Men would arrive before the sunrise, and my grandmother would have ready the coffee for them. Once they left, we would wake up and have breakfast. Children were in charge of collecting the “pieces” of cork, the remains of the cork plate. We would spend all morning searching for those and putting them into sacks: our first wage as official workers!
Meanwhile, my grandfather surveyed all the process. These old men know their trees like the palm of their hand, love them, and are very protective of them. You cannot cut too much, or you will damage it, not too short either or nine years of waiting will go to waste. He would argue if somebody was not cutting the tree correctly. This is actually an art: you have to do vertical cuts and then carefully peel off the cork with the handle of the ax, which is specially sharpened. It is a hauntingly beautiful scene: the sun emerging through the treetops, with the rhythmic sound of the ax pounding the cork tree.
I would recommend attending and observing this activity if you are in Alentejo -especially around Évora- or Extremadura during summertime. Maybe one day they will invent the machine that extracts it faster and then this tradition will be lost! If you know a local family, you will be definitely useful as the pieces of cork always need to be picked up. As for us, our days working the cork are over. My grandparents, the glue that kept us all together, are gone now. To honor them, we still go and keep an eye on the workers so they will not damage their precious trees. We then have dinner at the cottage all together. Somebody has to sleep there: you never know when a cork robber will show up!
You probably never thought of it before, but cork is so important. There is a museum in San Vicente de Alcántara very illustrative about the whole process of extraction, and its many uses. A visit there is totally a must!
They explain the different types of corks with videos and photos, and also its use for cork bottles and insulating material. As a matter of fact, traditionally, men in the countryside make their coolers with it, and household items as well: you can still purchase them at fairs and local shops all over Extremadura and Alentejo.
Moreover, cork cannot be burnt by fire: a fact that protects our forests during the hot summer. This quality was taken advantage of by… NASA! Yes, their first rockets had cork inside, a material that resisted really high temperatures. In Germany, they are creating trains with cork in their walls: they are lighter, ecological, and very resilient! Last but not least, it is used in construction as well, and you see it more and more in shoes and clothes. However, do not forget: fancy as it ends up being, it all comes from a tree and an ax, from the deepest countryside of Spain and Portugal!
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