By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a series on my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon and July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto.
The next time you open a bottle of wine, rest your chilled cocktail on a coaster, or pin a note to an old-fashioned bulletin board, stop and say a quick “thank you” to Portugal. Chances are, the cork in the stopper, coaster and the bulletin board’s background material originated in this western European country.
According to the website http://www.worldstopexports.com, Portugal was the No. 1 cork exporter in 2016, accounting for 63.1 percent of the refined tree bark sent around the world. All that cork produced in excess of $1 billion for Portugal, far outdistancing No. 2 Spain, which had sales of $278.8 million and 17 percent of the market.
Filling out the top five: France, $73 million (4.4 percent); Italy, $44.8 million (2.7 percent); and Germany, $34.4 million (2.1 percent). Cork is produced in many countries, from Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) to China to South America (Chile), but the next 10 top exporters all together don’t begin to approach the output of Portugal.
On my May trip to Portugal, I noticed cork products everywhere. From simple trivets, to purses to postcards. In shops devoted to cork, the workmanship of the items was excellent, and that quality comes at a price. But if your heart’s desire is a wallet, umbrella — cork is waterproof — or apron, you won’t be disappointed.
The mercado (market) in Porto, in northern Portugal, and the Saturday-Sunday flea market along several blocks of the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, turned out to be good places for less-expensive goods. An added bonus: The vendors behind the cork-heaped tables and hanging displays may have had a hand in the manufacturing of the goods, and they’re open to bargaining.
At the two-story Mercado do Bolhão in eastern Porto, I bought a cork purse with a painted floral design for a friend’s daughter. For myself, I got a trivet — a ladder of four chunky fish, alternating head to tail, bound together by braided rope. The covered market dates to the 19th century, and it caters to locals, selling a wide variety of fresh and frozen fish and seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, olives, flowers, bread and more. It’s fun even if you aren’t looking for cork souvenirs.
On the Avenida da Liberdade, I bought a book cover for under $10 from a woman who had designed and sewn the versatile material, “cork leather,” if you will. It marries well with stamped designs, and also takes to dyeing. My book cover has both. The bottom part is a solid, rich navy, and the tan top has a repeating pattern of stamped fish, anchor motifs and maybe a stylized Viana heart, a religious symbol in Portugal.
The woman said the cork is very supple and easy to sew. Even though it is thin, it isn’t on par in thickness with most cotton and silk fabric. When I’ve filled the included notebook, I can replace it with one of similar size. I particularly like the little faux silver spoon that serves as part of the clasp.
Cork has small indentations like you would expect to find in tree bark. Some products have a more pebbly-looking finish — the processing must be different — but are still smooth to the touch, what you’d associate with bulletin boards and coasters.
Along the waterfront in the Belem section of western Lisbon, I bought four thin postcards (I did see racks of these in other locations). Two exceedingly thin slices of cork, each 6 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches in size, are glued together. One side has the design and the other has a barcode, the place for a stamp, address and writing space. I’m not sure how well the postcards would do passing through an automated sorting system, whether it would be too rough and damage them, so perhaps they wouldn’t reach their destination intact. Instead of mailing them to friends, I intend to use them as coasters.
I can’t remember how much I paid, but they were cheap. Each has a different design. One celebrates the art of Portuguese tiles. Another pays homage to the country’s seafaring history with a speedy caravel centered on a tile. Another has two electric trams like you’d see on the streets in Lisbon, and the fourth a colorful, red-crested cockerel, an enduring Portuguese icon with its own story.
As my postcard and guidebook tell it, a 16th-century pilgrim (or possibly 14th century) on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was accused of theft in Barcelos, a walled village with a medieval tower in northwestern Portugal. He was sentenced to death by hanging. His appeal to the judge rested on a humble rooster.
Legend has it that the pilgrim said a cooked bird would “rise from the plate and sing,” proving his innocence. Apparently, as the judge was about to eat the rooster, it crowed. The pilgrim was saved. I saw many a rooster perched on top of cork stoppers, the perfect pairing of Portuguese symbols for the shopping public.
Cork is a renewable and recyclable resource, and it’s biodegradable. The lightweight material comprises the outer layer of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber L.), which grows particularly well in countries around the Mediterranean.
Large pieces of bark can be stripped every nine years or so from the trunk, by skilled professionals using a specialized ax. (This is a good-paying job because the expertise is so specific.) The season for doing this is between May and August. However, a tree has to mature to about 25 years old before it can be harvested for the first time. It also has to meet circumference and height minimums.
Cork floats, which makes it popular with fisherman, who use it in their nets or on individual fishing lines. It’s employed in soundproofing and flooring, to the delight of architects and other designers who feature it in their building plans.
Footwear, toys, jewelry, clothing, furniture, desk accessories — cork appears in them all. NASA is even high on the material, incorporating cork into heat shields for spacecraft.
In Porto, I also passed a shop that had standing rolls of cork and a lot of business and home decor accessories. It looked like it took custom orders. It was not touristy at all, as I saw no cork-and-ceramic souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the address or the name of the shop.
No matter. Even if I hadn’t already made my cork purchases, the possibility of another memento was probably just around the corner.
Quick reference: In Porto: Mercado do Bolhão, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Near the Bolhão metro stop, market is on the corner of Rua Formosa and Rua Sá da Bandeira. In Lisbon: Cork & Co., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Rua das Salgadeiras 10, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Also a store in Porto at Rua do Almada 13. www.corkandcompany.pt For additional information on cork, its harvesting and production (and more), see top commercial producer Amorim’s website: www.amorimcork.com. Company heir Americo Amorim, Portugal’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $4.8 billion (part of that is oil holdings), died last month at age 82.