18 Jun 2015: Visit to Cork Stripping
An early start was required when the Royal British Club commenced their journey into the Alentejo to witness the harvesting of cork and the processing of manufacture. More that 30 Members and guests travelled by coach to meet with Raul Valle of Amorim & Irmãos.S.A, (http://www.amorimcork.com )who was to be our guide for the day. Amorim are one of the leading cork production companies in Portugal.
We set off early from Estoril so as to avoid delays with the morning rush hour traffic into Lisbon which had been exacerbated by a strike on the city’s Metro system. However, we hadn’t bargained for our expert driver, Luis Resende, who navigated our 51 seater bus around the Lisbon highways without getting involved with the problems that ordinary motorists were experiencing. As a consequence, we breezed over the Vasco de Gama bridge in record time and arrived at out first point of call, deep in the oak forests of the Alentejo, at least 45 minutes early. I must admit that I was a little concerned that this would create some frustration, but Raul had thought of everything. We arrived at Hrerdade de Rio Frio at Pinhal Novo, where we were met by José Augusto Ramos Rocha, President of Sociedade Agricola de Rio Frio, S.A. which was an equestrian centre and wine making establishment: http://www.rio-frio.eu/pt/ .
This unscheduled event was a surprise to us all, but it was a very pleasant surprise. Sr Rocha took us on a tour of the beautifully restored indoor riding school and stables that can house over 50 horses and he explained his plans for the future development of the equestrian scene on the Rio Frio estate. A small selection of sleek, fit looking horses were on show and after a visit to the indoor riding school the real surprise came. A selection of wines were laid out along with some local bread and cheese and we were invited to sample these new wines which were now ready for market. As we had all risen from our beds early that day this early treat was a very welcome and encouraging interlude to our progress.
There was some reluctance to leave the beautiful surroundings of Rio Frio and the very pleasant wine, but with sprits restored we climbed back onboard our coach for the short trip to the cork forests nearby.
Temperatures at this time of year in the cork forests regularly get up to 300 C and are often in excess of this. Today seemed no exception and the hot, dusty, manual work of stripping the cork bark was made all the more tiring for the workers by this incessant heat. However, Raul explained that these workers were amongst the highest paid agricultural workers in the world, we thought they deserved every cent of their pay. He also went on to explain how the location of the forest was crucial to its development, not only was the sandy soil perfect, but the climate in this part of Portugal played a vital role in the development of the forests. It was also interesting to note that the trees were not flammable, so there is no risk of a forest fire damaging the forest.
The dust and heat were oppressive so we were glad to get back into our air-conditioned coach to take us to the cork factory at Coruche, about 30 miles north.
On arrival at the factory Raul set about painting a picture of how the cork industry had developed from a rather lethargic and sleepy industry, which relied on the natural product without considering its improvement, and how it had needed to expand and advance in the face of new competitive products. He explained that with the introduction of screw-cap and synthetic bottle tops, suddenly their cosy market place was being invaded and this required some serious action to compete. Fortunately the cork itself was the saviour, but it had to be improved and refined to combat the introduction of the screw-tops and synthetic corks. There was also a market to be explored outside the wine industry as uses for cork were continually being identified in a wide variety of industrial and commercial areas. Its heat and flame resistance makes it very attractive to industrial applications and its insulating qualities provide other opportunities for its use. The fashion industry also seized the initiative as shown on the Amorim web site as follows:
Cork is a differentiating product, associated with quality. It awakens sensations, appealing to creativity and comfort. When combined with other materials, it adds value and helps to reinforce the concept of originality, both from the designer’s and the user’s perspective. From decor to the most sophisticated fashion, cork has given rise to jewellery, clothing and footwear. Prestige brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Prada, Stella McCartney, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci are proud to integrate it into their collections.
Although almost all of the quality sorting in the factory is still done by hand our tour continued through to the high-tec equipment for selecting the highest quality cork. The priority then was the production of Cork stoppers for the wine industry, for both the regular wine bottles and also for champagne. He stressed however that nothing is ever wasted. Sheet cork was produced along with cork granules that could be moulded and glued to make insulation. The dust and floor sweepings were used to generate electricity so there are no waste products in the factory.
Following the tour there was a great urgency to quench our thirst and sample the Alentejo cuisine at the ‘Sabores de Coruche’ which was just a couple of miles down the road. Conversation was spirited and convivial as we mulled over the events of the day, which had been enjoyed by all.