Cork oak forests occupy an estimated area of more than 2.1 million hectares in the Western Mediterranean countries extracting annually approximately 200 thousand tons of cork from the total extension of cork oak forests.
Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Algeria hold around 90% of the species’ distribution area but Portugal is by far the world’s leading cork producer responsible for around 50% of the volume of the world supply, transformation, and export.
The vast majority of the cork extracted is made into wine bottle stoppers but, increasingly, more and more cork is being sold and used by other industries such as the construction or fashion industries and even used as insulating solutions by NASA.
The best thing about cork, aside from being a good earner for Portugal, is that it’s sustainable. The trees aren’t cut down or damaged when the cork is harvested also, there are laws in place to protect these beautiful trees. To cut down a cork tree you actually need a permit from the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture, and it is illegal to cut a cork tree without one.
The cork tree is first harvested once the trees are mature, which takes around 25 years. Then they are harvested every 9 years, which is how long it takes for the bark to grow thick enough for it to be used.
Harvesting the cork is a skilled job and it is typically passed down in the family for generations. The workers have just one tool: an axe with a slightly curved blade. They make cuts along a line, and then use the head of the axe to prise the bark off without splitting or damaging it.
The corks on wine bottles are the best-known object, but there are many items made of cork: fashion accessories, clothes and shoes, furniture, and coverings, for floors or walls, among others. The recent invention of cork fabric has revolutionized this industry and highlights its much appreciated properties: it is resistant, versatile, recyclable, hypoallergenic, and has thermal and acoustic qualities. Furthermore, it has a very simple transformation process to work with.
In addition to objects of daily use, cork is part of the history of Portugal and can be found in many monuments and points of interest:
– in the Convento de Cristo, in Tomar, classified as World Heritage, the window of the Chapter Room is one of the points not to be missed, for their symbology and connection to the history of the Discoveries. Among the elements carved in the stone, we find cork oak trunks, recalling their use in the caravels of Portuguese navigators.
– the monks knew well how cork could make the environment more comfortable. Examples of this are the Convento dos Capuchos, in Sintra, the Convent of Santa Cruz do Buçaco and the Convent of Serra da Arrábida, in which the cells and some common rooms are lined with cork.
– the cribs from the sec. XVIII, by the sculptor Machado de Castro, with terracotta figures in cork backdrops is a reference in the history of Portuguese decorative arts. One of them can be seen in the Basilica da Estrela, in Lisbon.
– in Sintra, Countess d’Edla’s Chalet was built and decorated in the romantic spirit of the 18th century. XIX. On door, window, and spectacle jambs, cork is one of the most expressive decorative elements.
– In the Algarve, São Brás de Alportel is a place where the cork industry was of great importance for its development. Currently, it is the center of a Cork Route.
– the history of cork is also unveiled in local museums, whether ethnographic, such as the José Régio Museum, in Portalegre or linked to industrial archeology, with the Seixal Ecomuseum.
Cork & Sports
A cork surfboard
Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara, who surfed one of the biggest waves in the world, has a surfboard made entirely of Portuguese cork. It was a joint effort, in which dozens of design, research, aerodynamic and material development professionals, in addition to Garrett McNamara himself, helped to produce the ideal board to withstand and surf the giant waves of the Nazaré canyon.
skateboards An innovative cork skateboard was developed by Australian producer Lavender Archer Cork Skateboards, with the support of Corticeira Amorim. Its production in laminated cork, with proven benefits in terms of performance, was motivated by the need to reduce the vibration typical of traditional skateboards currently on the market.