Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?





  1. davidprosser · September 17, 2015

    Well, that is a surprise. No, not that you’re expert with a bottle of wine but that Portugal is like the capital of corks. I imagine it must be quite interesting not just to see the tree the cork comes from, but how a cork is actually made because they don’t come off the tree that shape I’m guessing. I’m glad it was as much a surprise to you as to me Mel.since you’d expect that to be fairly common knowledge.Well done on making a decision to keep the real cork producers in work but I’m sure it doesn’t take that many bottle of wine a day you know.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Ha, ha….bien vu! Thanks for pointing out that my personal contribution to the cork industry should stay within reason. I didn’t go so far as to find out how the cork was actually made – I was more interested in checking the wine was well preserved! 😉 Cheers, mon ami! xo

  2. Food,Photography & France · September 17, 2015

    My maternal grandfather was Portuguese so I’ve been reasonably imbued with their culture from an early age. It’s sad that cork is often the reason for wine spoiling in the bottle, meaning that the screwtop will soon by ubiquitous and the sound of corks popping will be history:)

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Lucky you, Roger! It’s a wonderful culture indeed. Had no idea about the great cork debate but now that I do, I’d rather take the chance on the odd tainted bottle and preserve the tradition. Although, if it comes down to it, I’d rather have a screw cap than a plastic cork.

  3. memoirsofahusk · September 17, 2015

    I love cork. The ultimate renewable resource. When we were in Lisbon this summer I was very tempted by cork travel bags and a handbag (yes really), a cork sailor’s cap (but my husband hates them) and eventually settled for a cork & silver ban-the-bomb bracelet – right on and unusual! (the cork bit is the strap, the silver bits the symbol and the catch) We have in the recent past had dark brown almost black cork tiled bathroom floors varnished shiny – gorgeous to behold. Right now I’m trying to convince someone who does most fo the diy (yes, husband) that wallpapering our spare loo ( a very small room) with cork would be good … it comes in rolls. But I don’t think I’m winning.

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Wow, you are on a cork roll! Your enthusiasm has inspired me – we are thinking of finishing the basement and a cork floor could be a great alternative to cold tile or musty broadloom. I wonder if I’ll find a supplier in France…;)

      • memoirsofahusk · September 18, 2015

        Try Googling siesta cork tiles – you never know!

      • MELewis · September 19, 2015

        Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  4. Mél@nie · September 17, 2015

    I’ve never been to Portugal, as it’s on our list à la retraite, but I did know about their “cork” stuff, since we’ve loved Porto wine for decades… cheers! 😉 btw, here’s mon chêne-liège: 🙂

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Beautiful tree, and I love Francis Cabrel. White port is my favorite – a lighter, tangier version of the aperitif classic! Merci Melanie!

  5. poshbirdy · September 17, 2015

    Very interesting. I knew a bit about Portugal (and its beautiful cork trees), having seen programmes on TV, but it is definitely on my radar for a holiday.

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Well worth it. Lisbon is a happening place, and the whole coast south to the Algarve is just stunning… The cork trees were an unexpected bonus!

  6. Osyth · September 17, 2015

    I was slightly bemused when my husband first announced his desire to go to Portugal …. I know little of it except that it is joined onto Spain. He returned to this wish several times and then let slip the actual reason – the wine! Doh! How could I have been so obtuse 😉

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Excellent reasoning, this husband of yours. But there are many other reasons….not least the beaches, fresh air, quality and choice of fish and seafood.All I know is that I’ve never much taken to Spain but feel somehow at home in Portugal. Hope you make it there soon!

  7. A.PROMPTreply · September 17, 2015

    Most interesting…..I had no idea….actually had never really thought about where cork originates. Do very much enjoy your idea of leftover/used corks as a firestarter……..inspired!

    • MELewis · September 17, 2015

      Indeed, I had no idea it grew on trees….continually amazed by own ignorance! 😉

  8. coteetcampagne · September 17, 2015

    In 1978, we lined the party walls of our first house (2 bed terrace ) with thick (chocolate brown)cork til es. It reduced the noise from our very loud neighbours (nightly screaming matches) to a distant hum. Cheap and effective
    The alternative was egg boxes

    • MELewis · September 18, 2015

      Much more aesthetic than egg cartons, although I did see lots of those on the walls of makeshift recording studios back in the day! Nothing worse than noise from neighbours, especially when they are making not love but war (I think I feel another post coming on…) 🙂

  9. cheergerm · September 18, 2015

    I do love the sound of a popping cork, especially of the fizzy variety but increasingly, more and more of our wine is screw top. Back in the day, Aussie swagmen would hang corks around their hats to keep the flies away? Maybe you could use up your corks that way as well? 😁 We hope to get to Portugal one day Mel. Hope it was a beaut Hollie.

    • MELewis · September 18, 2015

      Oh, I can just see me in France with an Aussie swagsman hat! I already get plenty of looks as it is… The holiday was lovely, it’s been awhile since we took two whole weeks and it was well worth it. Hope you make it there one day, it is indeed lovely if a bit of a schlep from your parts!

  10. Steven Cramer · September 21, 2015

    Those trees are amazing and just complete the bottle perfectly!

    • MELewis · September 21, 2015

      Both beautiful and useful, what more can you ask? 😉

  11. Michael · September 22, 2015

    Oh! I never knew that Portugal is “world capital of cork”. Anyway, what to do with the leftover corks? One day I was sitting in the armchair made of old corks. Highly incomfortalbe and still inflammable, but there’s some kind of idea 🙂

    • MELewis · September 24, 2015

      Too bad it was uncomfortable! Maybe a cushion would have helped? 😉 I also saw tables and footstools made of cork while in Portugal. It really is an amazing material!

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