Meet Antonio and Jose. Two great guys who spent four hours introducing us to Portugal’s cork forest. Antonio is a geometry teacher, wine maker and sculptor who studied art in Italy and now lives with his wife and two children in Redondo Portugal. Jose is an archeologist who grew up in a little village called Freixo and now lives in his wife’s grandparents’ home in Redondo. Jose will become a father in a couple of months. He is an accomplished accordion player.
Together these two intelligent, incredibly informative and talkative fellows give tours in the Aljento area of Portugal for Herdade da Maroteira Farms a fifth generation family business.
The farm was started in the 1800s by a British immigrant named Robert Reynolds. It has a huge cork forest, a vineyard, an olive orchard and raises sheep.
Tours have recently been added to their business model under a label called Cork Trekking.
Our tour started with coffee in the Herdade da Maroteira Farms office. The farm owns six dogs and Simba the beagle really liked Dave. Simba has one injured foot from when she was caught in a fox trap as a pup.
Our tour had just begun when our road was blocked by part of the farm’s sheep flock. We had to wait till the shepherd had herded them out-of-the-way. The cork trees all grow naturally. None were planted by the owner on the 900 acres of the farm’s cork forest. The forest has been here since the 1500s. The forest is separated into 10 sections and only one section has the cork stripped from the trees in any given year. A cork tree’s bark can be harvested only once every decade. Only the outer layer can be stripped off the tree. If the inner layer is damaged the tree will die. Here Jose’ shows Dave the outer layer of the tree that is stripped during a short period of time in spring when the temperature and humidity is exactly right. Cork stripping must be done expertly and people train for years to learn how to do it. It is a job that is physically and technically demanding but only can be done for a few weeks each year so cork strippers although paid well, need other employment to supplement their income. Trees are numbered after being stripped of their cork bark. This tree was harvested in 2014 so it won’t be stripped again till 2024.
Here are a few photos of the cork stripping process from Jose’s Facebook page.
I am beside a baby cork tree. Most of the trees in the cork forest are 150-200 years old and the cork is not stripped from a tree till it is between 35-50 years old. Although there are cork trees in other countries, Portugal is the number one producer of cork.
Jose and Antonio told us how good cork trees are for the environment. They remove far more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than other trees. There are no chemicals used in the growing of the trees. The bark is not even stripped with modern electric tools but simple axes and knives. Jose is a practicing archeologist so he ended the tour by showing us a series of monoliths, ancient burial sites from the neolithic period. These stone monolith structures could mark the spot of hundreds of buried bodies from a community. The bodies were buried in the fetal position and the structures looked like wombs with a passageway in front. This monolith may have provided shelter to hermit monks in the 14th and 15th century. It provided a nice reprieve from the wind and rain for us too. The day of our tour it was almost always drizzling and sometimes pouring. It was cold and so incredibly windy at times we were sure we’d be blown over. Yet we had a great adventure, not only because we learned about cork and monoliths but mostly because talking with Jose and Antonio who are widely read, thoughtful and great conversationalists….. about politics, history, culture, agriculture, immigration, education, family history, social dynamics and economics gave us a great window into life in Portugal.