He emerged from the undergrowth, tall, tanned and taut of torso, and I wondered if I was encountering my first bandit.
We were, after all, in bandit country – the wilds of Los Alcornocales Nature Park, the world’s largest cork forest.
In decades past, smugglers ran contraband up from Gibraltar through these woodlands via mule trains. (I could hear one hee-hawing close by.)
This guy was tooled up, too. (His axe glinted in the sunlight.)
He cracked a vulpine smile and for a moment, I knew how Little Red Riding Hood felt on her way to grandma’s house.
But he was a cork harvester, not a bandit, and he had designs on the tree, not me …
…alas! … as he was a bit of a corker himself, with his broad shoulders and bulging biceps, honed from hours of wielding his hefty steel-tipped chopper, no doubt.
(Forgive the she-wolfish thoughts but we were on an excursion organised by Vulpes, so it’s
But ok, I was here to learn about the cork harvest (el descorche), not to leer at a strapping male stripping a tree of its bark like he was ripping open a bodice. Although it’s hard not to…
Thwack! With a few deft swings of his razor-sharp tool he makes horizontal and vertical cuts in the gnarled grey trunk. (What precision and controlled power!)
Thump thump! In and out goes the metal tip of his axe handle to prise the bark free. (But how gentle he is with the tree, taking care not to harm it.)
Kerthud! The bark slips to the ground in two perfect halves, laying bare the raw (flesh-toned) skin beneath.
Is there an onomatopoeic word for pulling apart a Velcro fastener (like the ones on an Ann Summers corset)? That’s what it sounds like as he unzips the bark from the tree.
Strip trees, striptease – it looks that easy!
No, seriously, there’s nothing titillating about the cork harvest …
It’s a highly skilled job and this guy’s so good at it (sigh). Far from being country bumpkins, ‘cork extractors’ take a two-year college course before they’re allowed near a tree. Two can process one in under five minutes.
When they’re done, they move on to the next tree without a backward glance. These cork oak artisans don’t do their own dirty work (although their work’s dirty enough). They have a personal muleteer to gather up the cork after them.
These guys’ muleteer really did resemble a bandit, with his swarthy skin and bandit’s bandana. ‘Bya’ he barked in his rough country dialect. It could have been ‘buenas días’ … It could have been ‘bugger off out of it you interfering giries’. Who knows?
His mules understood, waiting patiently in the shade for their next load. They looked content and well cared-for, decked out in colourful blinkers and bridles – embroidered, perhaps, by the bandit’s wife? (I wanted to know their names but it seemed silly-girlish to ask and we weren’t really making a verbal connection.)
Our guides had been busy on their mobile phones for an hour, trying to locate the position of these arboreal artisans. Don’t try it alone! We followed them for a while, clambering over boulders and dodging low-hanging branches. It’s hard to keep up – they work faster than we walk! The terrain is steep and undulating and the dry shale underfoot is slippy unless you’re a mule. Wear climbing boots!
They’ve been hard at it since daybreak and now the sun’s high in the sky. There are 10 of them in the woods today and their target is 2,000 kilos of cork apiece. That’s a lot of cork as it doesn’t weigh much. But not a lot of money, these days. They’ll earn around €100 per man for seven hours work and it’s a short season in Los Alcornocales. Just June and July.
The working conditions are pleasant, at least: fresh air, sun-dappled shade, a stunning sylvan scene. Coming from the concrete jungle, you forget what it’s like to be lost in a real woodland: a green enchantment stirring childhood memories of Richard Green dressed up as Robin Hood (riding through the glen) or Winnie the Pooh pottering in the Hundred Acre Wood. Piglet would have a field day in autumn, when the park is full of ‘haycorns’.
If they tell you cork harvesting is a dying art, that’s not quite true. Plastic is not so fantastic for bottle corks (the wine can’t breathe). Although only 15% of the cork harvest ends up in bottles it brings in 66% of the revenue – an impressive €2billion for Spain’s coffers annually.
But forests ARE dying. Your children’s grandchildren may never get to see the cork harvest. If you can picture 14,000 international rugby fields laid end to end, that’s how much of Los Alcornocales may be lost forever in the next year or so – a renewable resource destroyed to build two more golf courses, one more five-star hotel and another superfluous airport! Read all about it here.
We followed the bandit and his mule back down hill to a clearing in the forest called the ‘patio’ where the cork is graded and weighed on a giant set of scales. Some of it might end up at NASA in space rocket heat shields, or at Lords in the core of cricket ball. Lower grade cork goes into fashion shoes (no wonder they fall apart). This is just the start of its journey.
But the end of ours. As we depart, I see my pin-up cork extractor returning from his labours with his team and take one last appreciative photo.
I won’t see him again here for another nine years, by which time I’ll probably be too decrepit for a repeat visit!
And in all the excitement I forgot to eat my bocadillo (they always ask you to bring one on these trips but who knows when you’re supposed to eat it?). I took it home and opened a nice bottle of wine to go with it.
With a real cork, of course!
We paid €10 to go on this trip with Vulpes and it’s well worth it. Although you take your own car the price includes accident insurance, coffee and a tostada at a local venta before we set off, and great company. Who knows, you could meet a real corker yourself? (Sorry guys, we haven’t yet heard of female cork harvesters but you never know …)