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A corking good time

Kevin Galea gets up close and personal with some strippers at a Cork hotel – and it’s not what you think.

Monsaraz

Monsaraz

A unique hotel in Portugal offers an all-male, daily morning and afternoon strip show.  Men, ranging in ages from 18 to 60 and representing various degrees of sagging musculature, strip away in front of your bedroom window.  They peel everything off in less than five minutes. But it’s not what you’re thinking.

Antonio is one of the troupe of resident strippers. He has been stripping cork trees for 20 years.  But his job (toreador de cortica – taking off the cork), is in jeopardy. His stripping days may soon be over.

EvoraEvora

The four-star ECork Hotel, seven kilometres from the Unesco World Heritage Site of Evora, an hour from Lisbon, is the world’s first cork hotel.Designed by Portuguese architect Jose Carlos Cruz, it is cork-clad and insulated, solar heated, energy efficient and ecologically worthy. It took 10 years in planning and two in building, and accommodation comprises 56 modernist white block suites.  Says general manager, Manuel Policarpo: “I bought the property in 2003 and wanted to do something different. I came up with the idea because I believe in the green future. Tourists are well informed; they want to stay in a place which cares for the environment, and I am a cork lover.”

The Alentejo region is well-known for medieval villages like Monsarez and Estremoz as well as Lago Alquevera, the biggest artificial lake in Europe.. The hotel is in the heart of cork country.

There are a nearly 1,000 cork factories in Portugal.  Most are located in Aveiro in the north. The Montado cork woods or stands are in the central and southern regions.  There are 750,000 hectares of cork woods throughout the country.

The Alentejo (Beyond the Tagus) region in south-central Portugal has the highest density of cork land in Portugal with a half a million acres devoted to the ancient quercus suber cork oak. One mature tree may produce 4000 cork bottles but ancient skill and the traditional rural lifestyle are being challenged by synthetic bottle stoppers and screw-off bottles.  A total of 25,000 jobs are at risk.

Ancient skill and the traditional rural lifestyle are being challenged by synthetic bottle stoppers and screw-off bottles

In the holm cork groves around the cork hotel, Antonio showed me his axe.  It has been passed down through the family. He then introduced me to a cork tree.

He slapped it.  “She’s a beauty. She’s the only tree that regenerates naturally after being cut. She needs no fertiliser or herbicide.”

He swung his axe. “The best time for stripping off is May to August. We must wait nine years after the virgin cut, the pau batido which is only permitted when the trunk is two to three feet thick.   The best cork is called amadia. This comes when the tree is 25-years-old.

“Wine corks can be as much as 30 years old. One tree can offer 16 harvests.”

The Romans harvested cork in the first century. In the 17th century the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon was credited with first using cork stoppers, although glass bottles were invented by the Germans 10 centuries earlier. Cork became popular in the 19th century, when ageing wine became common.

Portugal remains the leading producer, accounting for 55 per cent per of the 320,000 tonnes produced world-wide.  It is the home of a third of the world’s cork trees. Cork exports from Portugal are worth over €900m.

The ECork HotelThe ECork Hotel

Cork harvesting is very environmentally-friendly and ecologically-sensitive, and cutters are only allowed to cut 1200lbs a day.  Professional harvesting does not harm the trees. A stripped cork quickly changes from a rose to red ochre and then to a reddish brown and grey. Cork trees cannot be cut down in Portugal.

Nearby, Jose worked away at the top of is ladder. After the harvest, the cork planks are stacked and left outside for six months, to let the elements purge the sap. They are then boiled in water to make them pliable. Nothing is wasted. After three weeks, the cork is punched out and sent to the factory, where it’s made into stoppers.

The knock-on effects of non-cork stoppers are not only human. There are conservation issues involved too. The Iberian lynx and Iberian eagle, as well as the Barbary deer in Tunisia, will be threatened if farmers continue to diversify by planting more profitable pine and eucalyptus.

In the hotel restaurant, under an abstract design of cork blocks, I learned  from the sommelier that a bad cork smells of wet horses.

Cork harvesting is very environmentally-friendly and ecologically-sensitive, and cutters are only allowed to cut 1200lbs a day

Recent research has confirmed that modern plastic stoppers do not promote the same ageing properties and complex tastes in a bottle of wine that are developed with natural cork. Supposedly inexpensive screw-cap closures also require a special threaded bottle.

Corking has been found in bottled water, screw-capped wine, beer and even raisins.  Spoilage in the barrel or badly-managed fermentation can both be factors.

“You cannot blame them,” said the sommelier, gesturing out through the window towards the cork trees. And the on-going strip show.

www.ecorkhotel

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