Abbe’s Ruminations on Cork June 2024   Abbe in Portugal

I wonder at my ignorance.   I’m reminded that when we take something for granted a history of discovery, labor, and wonder lies behind the simplicity of what is considered basic.

My most recent aha is that of cork.  Up until my trip to Portugal, I never pondered the subject.   I love the pop when I pulled the cork stopper from a bottle of wine, especially since I’ve mastered the manual opener. Beyond that, cork gave me no pause.

Cork comes from a species of oak tree.  Oak trees produce more than acorns! The bark of a cork oak tree dies and after seven to nine years, it can be harvested leaving the tree space to grow.  A normal oak tree lasts about twenty-five years but one’s harvest for their bark can live up to two hundred years.

No wonder a family in Azaruja, Portugal has devoted their life to this tradition.  A business, but more a labor of love, the best cork is harvested after twenty-seven years (3 cycles of 7-9 years of harvest).  I watched the workers denude the trees, the drying process, and then the deep twelve-foot vat of boiling water where the pallets of dry cork are pressed down to stretch and make flexible. The newer harvests are used for cheaper bottle stoppers, but it is the older tighter harvest that is coveted.

Since the wine industry has modified its bottle closures with screw caps, or synthetic stoppers, the call for cork has diminished. Not to worry, as new sustainable uses of cork are vast.    Because cork is light, durable, impermeable, elastic, compressible and fire-resistant it can be used for thermal and acoustic insulation used in planes, homes, and cars.   (At the oak forest the acorns are fed to the pigs, the ones known to produce the highest quality ham and thinly sliced prosciutto.)

The best new use is for cloth died and made into shoes, hats, and belts—even chairs. Not one to usually think in terms of fashion, I couldn’t help myself and bought a cap, belt, and sandals.   I feel sophisticated and stylish when I wear them. 

After visiting the oak forest and factory, my mind runs wild imaging stories of love and mystery in the cork forest. If only trees could talk.

After my next novel, The Underpainting, is released I may write of the those involved a century of living on the land and their dreams and fears.

In the meantime, you can find me at, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll be sending out more information about The Underpainting in the near future.

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