Spanish original and photos
The children of Alcalá grew up surrounded by cork, that protective skin which makes the alcornoque [cork-oak] such a special tree. In any house cork would be present as an essential part of daily life and used in many different ways: baskets for keeping bread; washboards - large, curved pieces of cork to scrub clothes on; cork boards put in front of the table or the bed to keep in the heat, or in front of the fire to catch the sparks; lids for jars, bottles and jugs; thin layers of cork for packaging; toys and balls for children to play with; cork wall linings to soundproof rooms; pistol shot for children's toy guns; lifebelts for learning to swim; all kinds of floats to hold up the fishing nets used by the tuna fleets, and a thousand other uses.
Later, in the 1940s, my eldest brother Cristóbal worked as an administrator in the Town Hall in Jerez. He was away from home for a period and we all wanted him to come back, to see what he would bring for us. He was entrusted to go with an engineer and some teams of cork-workers into the Montes de Propios Jerezanos [a range of hills east of Jerez] near El Jautor and Puerto Galis, to harvest the cork. I believe he went as an administrator and accountant. The whole of the Alcornocales Park, from the beginning of June till the end of August, was on the move. When he returned he brought us younger children some curiosities from the hills. They were figures made from the roots and branches of the cork-oaks themselves, made into fanciful shapes for our amusement.
The cork-oak, because of its protective cork layer, is different from trees in general. As such it is appreciated for its many ecological values and for its role in life, culture and the economy over a wide area and timespan. It is a Mediterranean tree, whose forests extend into Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Algeria. It can be said with a certain pride that the heart of these forests is the Alcornocales National Park, at the centre of which is Alcalá de los Gazules. Certainly in ancient times the Egyptians, Greeks and Roman used these trees to make ships, household items, amphoras, funeral urns and other receptacles. But it was the 17th Century which saw the splendid marriage between cork and wine, thanks to the French monk D. Pierre Perignon.
It is an ingenious process which begins with the cork harvest, uniting the culture and economy of the towns in the Park. When the teams are ready they go out into the cork groves to collect the precious slabs. The cork lorries bring the raw material to the processing plants within the Park. Once it is off the tree, it is stored over the summer on patios, from where it is taken to the tanks to be boiled, which improves its elasticity and increases the quality, leaving behind any impurities in the boiling water. It is then scraped and trimmed, and with considerable skill the selector or pajolí weighs and grades the boards, classifying them according to thickness and quality.
The final stage is the pressing and baling, where the cork is packed up ready for other industrial processes, unfortunately far from the Alcornocales Natural Park. Its principal destiny is the wine industry. That is where it becomes part of the “essential ritual” in the opening of a good bottle. It imports a unique character, adding nobility and distinction to the finest wines, such is the guarantee and confidence that accompanies it.
Other industrial uses are panelling, handicrafts, insulation, floor coverings, fabrics, accessories for the automobile and aerospace industries, furniture … It would be good if some of these could be produced by a range of craft workshops in the Park itself. This is one of the main challenges for the Alcornocales.
As I spoke previously [Memories 39] of the muleteers and charcoal lorries, we must now speak about the muleteers and the cork lorries. The planks of cork were collected up by the arrecogeores, while the rajador split the large planks into a size usable by the industry. When they had been put into piles, the arrieros would arrive with their mules and load up the baskets. And off would go the mules with the lad towards the patio, where the pesaor and apuntaor would be waiting to weigh and value the cork, using a tripod scale with balance and plate. These were the fieles, people trusted by the owner and the buyer. Then it only remained for the lorries to be loaded up with their spectacular cargoes and leave the farms to go to the factories. It looked impossible that they would reach their destination without the planks falling off, but the cargaores knew what they were doing. The paths into Alcalá then became like a watercolour picture, with the strings of beasts coming in from the patios. And the roads resembled an oil painting, with lorries loaded impossibly high.
Luis Romero Acedo, President of the Rural Development Group [GDR], says that “with the arrival of the warm May weather, in the towns of the Alcornocales, can be heard the rumble of the approaching cork harvest. It is the preparation for the hand-to-hand combat about to take place in the nearby hills. The teams are being formed, with the foreman looking for the best men, repairing the kit and getting supplies together. The animals are checked out and the axes sharpened. The countryside is in sight, the deals have been made and the trees are waiting up there in the rugged hills.”
Translated by Claire Lloyd