Cork Harvesting

Cork is a traditional, raw material found here in the Algarve with unique characteristics. A team from Mar d’Estórias in Lagos, which sells cork in many of its design products, went to Reguengo, near Rogil to learn more.

Cork harvesting takes place between May and the end of August, which is a more active time for cork growth. When we got to Reguengo we spoke with the specialist António Campos, known as António da Espantadiça.

António explained that it takes 25 years for a tree to start to produce cork, and the first harvest is known as ‘desbóia’. This so called ‘virgin cork’ has little commercial value because it is irregular and too hard to be easily handled.

Nine years later, the second harvest (secondary cork) produces material with a regular structure, less hard, but still not suitable for cork stoppers.

At the age of 43 the ‘cork amadi’ (third harvest) is extracted and has the ideal properties for the production of quality corks (regular and smooth). From then on, every nine years, the cork will supply good quality cork for more than 150 years (18-20 harvests throughout the tree’s life).

António da Espantadiça told us that he began to load cork about 40 years ago and only after two years did he start to take the raw material from the cork tree: “I started by loading the cork. After some time, the harvester told me to take the ‘wedges’ of the cork tree (the base of the trunk – also known as the ‘shoe’). He saw that I was good at it and, because they needed more people, he then told me to start harvesting as well.”

Usually, they work with a group of three or four people. At the very least, a harvester and a loader are required, however, ideally, six or seven men are needed to make the eight-hour work effective.

António explains that “the day starts at 8am – the work day is for 8h – 9h, but there are also men who work for 10 hours.” The harvester needs an axe and the loader ‘a rope and an enxerga’ (a kind of cushion so that the cork doesn’t hurt his back).

The harvesting has six phases:

1. Open – a vertical cut is made in the cork, and the edge of the axe is twisted so as to separate the outer from the inner bark.

2. Separation – the plank is then separated from the tree.

3. Dividing – a horizontal cut defines the size of the cork plank to be removed and what is to remain on the tree.

4. Extracting – the plank is removed from the tree with care so that it does not split. The larger the planks extracted, the higher their commercial value.

5. Removing – fragments of cork are removed from the base of the trunk.

6. Marking – the tree is marked, with the last number of the year in which it was harvested.

The harvester has to realise if the cork is thick enough to be removed and not to damage the tree with the extraction. Also, the specialist has to attest to the cork tree’s health: “There are trees that are ‘crying’ – they begin to produce water in the cork. When this happens, the cork is attached to the inner bark. And if we force and the cork is removed, the inner bark goes off with the cork, and the tree is damaged. If we realise that, we don’t take the cork out of that place so as not to kill the cork tree,” says the master. After the harvesting, the cork planks are stacked and rest for a month before going to the market, to mature and stabilize the cork.

Mar d’Estórias is an innovative place that values everything Portuguese. The shop currently sells Likecork which combines cork with ceramics, or As Portuguesas, the first flipflops in the world to use cork as the primary raw material.

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