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When we booked the "Algarve jeep safari," they promised a tour to the interior to show there was more to Portugal's southernmost region than beaches, bars and golf courses. We passed through remote villages; stopped off at a couple of out-of-the-way places for a coffee break and lunch; visited a distillery; and finally stopped in a cork oak grove, where Tomás our guide gave an interesting presentation.
At home, I usually drink wine in a screwtop bottle. I know there’s a bit of controversy about it, but for me the wine is just the same. The main advantage is that if you don’t drink all the wine at one go, you can put the cap back on and stick it back in the fridge or wine rack.
The cork still has its place, though. That is, corks made out of actual cork (in my view, the plastic cork is the invention of the Devil - and which by the way should be disposed of responsibly, rather than crushing it contemptuously underfoot as it deserves).
Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber), which can be removed without harming the tree. Indeed, in Portugal, it’s illegal to fell a cork oak. New bark will eventually be formed, making it a sustainable resource. The quality of the cork increases with each "harvesting". The first "cut", when the tree is about 25 years old, produces the lowest quality, which is used for notice boards and such. Thereafter, the cork can be harvested every ten or so years. In its 200-year life span, a tree is usually good for up to 12 harvests. The third and subsequent harvests can be used for wine bottles; anything before that goes for other purposes; Tomás mentioned lifebelts, but I think most are made from plastic nowadays?
Or fishing floats (for non anglers, these are used to suspend lines from the water's surface)! I remember we sometimes "recycled" corks from bottles as such; the shop-bought ones used usually to be made of cork, too. With my "environmental hat" on, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if they were once more used in fishing.
A couple of days later, in Lagos (the Portuguese one, not the Nigerian one, obviously) we came upon a stall which sold nothing but products made from cork. They included pretty much everything that's usually made from leather - handbags, wallets, belts, and the like. We didn’t buy anything, but I couldn’t help wondering how long a belt made of cork would last...
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