Deep into one of the 350 remaining cork oak forests (in my case Herdade dos Fidalgos, near Lisbon) sometime between June and August you'll suddenly come across a team of about 20 men, ranging in ages from 16 to 70, striking huge twisted trees with axes. Then, with a sensitivity you would not associate with an axe, they prise the juicy bark from the tree and it is levered from the trunk in great, satisfying pieces. From the base, right up to the beginning of the branches, it is peeled away to reveal the oak's red, nude surface underneath.
When the tree is completely harvested, the axeman takes a swig from his water barrel and moves on to the next. Periodically, a truck comes to collect the pieces of cork and take them to nearby sheds where they will be weathered for months before being processed. The truck is the only obvious exception to a process that hasn't changed since the 18th century, when montados (open cork oak woodlands) and forests here in Portugal, in southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey began to be exploited commercially to produce wine corks. A white number is painted on the tree. It will be nine years before it's disturbed again.
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(Image credit: Katherine Rose/the Observer)