If you’re looking for a place where tranquility abounds, the Alentejo is the place. This is a constant feeling you get when you find yourself surrounded by the endless Alentejo landscapes, its slower pace of life, and its wide and endless plains. It’s a land of simplicity where nature takes the leading role and the past lives on.
Cork is part of the natural wonder that people from the Alentejo have upheld for centuries - it is harvested from a specific layer of bark, on the cork oak tree. This layer, called the phellem layer, is composed of a water-repelling material that has unique characteristics: it is impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and fire-retardant. Cork oaks grow all over this wide montado (cork forest) landscape - a Mediterranean type of forest that is symbiotic for pasture - so 73% of Portugal’s production of cork comes from this area of the country.
Cork is also a synonym of sustainability: harvesting of cork doesn’t require the cutting down of any trees - instead, the trees grow until they’re about 30 years old, and then the cork is stripped from the tree trunks every nine years. The first harvest is the one with the lowest commercial value, named the “virgin cork”. After 9 years, the second harvest is still pretty irregular, so this cork is commonly used for construction or design. The third one is the perfect one - finally, with a homogeneous aspect, it will be used for cork stoppers production. Since cork oaks tend to live about 200 years, it gives an average of 17 harvestings during an average lifetime. Also, cork is a material that is easy to recycle, and cork oak forests prevent fires and desertification in the areas of Southern Portugal.
The uses of cork are tremendous: it can be used in fashion, furniture, gaskets, handicraft, musical instruments, and, of course, to make cork stoppers. In the different zones of Alentejo, it mustn’t be hard to find a shop with local products made out of cork - such as umbrellas, cribs, bags, fans, necklaces and bracelets, key chains and even shoes.
Also, since cork is now gaining traction in the design world and is a great insulator of both heat, cold, and sound, there’s a hotel in Évora (one of the main cities of the region) in which the building is fully clad in cork. When in the Alentejo, you can also go on cork tours to see with your own eyes how it is made - the harvesting of this Alentejo pearl.