Cork OakNot something most of us think about much and with alternatives being used more and more often it is a product we are also using less. Despite this cork oak forests still make a substantial contribution to the economy and ecology of Portugal, the country remains the leading producer, producing nearly 50% of the world’s total. Virtually all of the cork that Portugal produces comes from Alentejo, but the Algarve still produces around 5% and so there are plenty of places to visit to see the trees, production and buy products.

I did hesitate in posting today as we’ve not yet visited a factory and so these photos are from a few young trees we passed one day in the hills. However as it could be months before we fit in a true cork day, I thought I’d post these with a promise of a follow up!

Portugal 082It is a product that has been in use for thousands of year, the earliest the period I can find it was used is 3000 BC! Many of the cork oak forests in Portugal were first planted in the 18th century when the demand for cork stoppers really took off, cork stoppers however had been in use for centuries before that.

With my fabulous friend who is a bit of a wine buff, hence stopping to photograph the cork!

With my fabulous friend who is a bit of a wine buff, hence stopping to photograph the cork!

The Champagne cork with it’s mushroom shape is I’m sure one many of us have come across either when opening a bottle ourselves, or seeing a cork fly out of the bottle in a restaurant or at the end of the Grand Prix. I’ve learnt that champagne cork stoppers are in three sections – two sections of pristine cork in the bottle and the top bit a mixture of ground cork and glue. Champagne corks are referred to as agglomerated corks, and their mushroom shape is a result of the compression and occurs after the wine has bottled.

Portugal 071It takes around 25 years before the bark is ready to be harvested, and it is not until the third harvest when the tree is over 40 years old that the cork is of a quality suitable for cork stoppers. Harvests occur every 9 years and driving through the Cork Oak forests you will notice the trees have numbers on them indicating the year when they were last harvested. The trees live for about 300 years.

DSCN8664It is not just winter stoppers cork is used for. The bark is truly incredible, and you will find it used for bags, footwear, cricket balls, parts of cars, table mats, woodwind instruments, boats and even postage stamps! I couldn’t resist one of the handbags this year and have been impressed how well it handles the British weather.