In the ten years that I have been riding the bridle paths and drove roads of the Sierra de Huelva with my horse, Chaparro, I have become fascinated by cork oaks/alcornoques (Quercus Suber) and cork. It’s no surprise really as the alcornoques populate the landscape we ride through, whether it is the lush green central valley of the Sierra or the dry hills to the north and south.
Cork appears everywhere, being used variously as guards to protect the front doors of houses in the villages to repel the teeming rain, as insulation (as in the roof of the 16th Century church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, in Navahermosa), as receptacles for drinking water- cucharos, as low squat stools held together by nails made from Jara/ Rock rose (Cister Landafer), as protective sheaths for axes, as primitive beehives and for all sorts of other improvised DIY uses…
The alcornocque gives it’s name to a person with specific characteristics – clumsy and not very bright – I suppose we would say “thick”.
The acorns or bellotas from the cork oaks fall on our paths in winter and nourish the black Iberian pigs, cattle and other livestock we meet along the way. Horses are also partial to acorns. In February when you gather the acorns up in your hands you can see them starting to form shoots. These then become chaparros – wee cork oak seedlings. So my horse has a good Serrano name…
Over the last three years I’ve been documenting what I can of the local cork harvest. My idea is to do this through film (a slow burning project), drawings and photography. During the many conversations I’ve had with older, local people, like Emilio de La Huerta Grande, I’ve become acutely aware of how much this skilled work is in decline and how the men who know how to harvest cork are scarce now compared with 50 years or so ago…. Before, in towns like Galaroza, there were many cuadrillas of cork harvesters working but now there are just a handful. The cork can only be harvested every nine years and it takes a mixture of skilled sensitivity and brute force to handle the axes used strip the cork, leaving the tree unscathed. No machine can do this and there is no way to hurry the time it takes for the tree to produce more cork (the harvests are also strictly controlled by the Parque Natural and the Environmental Agency). That said, no good cork harvester worth their salt would try to strip a cork oak before it was time. To them the paperwork and permission required is secondary to the well-being of the tree, and often there is friction between “Park” officials and men who have a daily working knowledge of the job. Every tree is different and requires special handling. The axes have a slightly curved blade, a wooden shaft made from chestnut, and this is tipped with a metal edge for prizing off the cork once it is cut with the axe blade.
The harvest starts in June when the weather heats up… to safely strip a cork of its bark and not damage the tree it has to be hot. Traditionally the “bornizo” (the tree’s first harvest, when the bark is still not yet cork) was harvested in May; now it is harvested at the same time as the cork – a change that happened with the advent of Natural Park status. The Agencia de Medioambiente controls what happens agriculturally speaking in the Parque Natural and permission has to be sought before harvesting cork, pollarding chestnuts, felling trees or clearing scrub.
This year I worked with two cuadrillas.
My friend Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” Antunez Tristancho, is almost 80 years old and has been, amongst others of his generation, my teacher with regards to the popular history of the area. He has worked all his life in agriculture and loves trees. He is still tough, extremely fit, he walks for miles although a few years back he fell out of a chestnut tree whist pollarding it and broke his arm. I was lucky enough to see him pollard chestnuts one winter, alongside his son, José, and grandson, Isaac, at his smallholding, La Viriñuela. Now his family makes sure that his presence at the cork harvest is in a “supervisory” role. When I learned that Emilio’s cork harvest at his farm, La Caseta, near Jabugo was to be this year I was really keen not to miss it and to see three generations at work. La Caseta is now mainly worked by Emilio’s son, José, who lives there with his partner, Mayte. Emilio still works a smallholding at La Viriñuela and also has a sensational vegetable plot just on the edge of Galaroza.
I visited La Caseta on the second day of the harvest there and enjoyed a traditional serrano breakfast of toast with cured ham, olive oil and tomato, with Maria, Emilio’s wife and Mayte, before following the sound of axes down into a hollow to where the men were harvesting the cork.
The cuadrilla was made up from men from various villages… Emilio, his son José, his grandson Isaac, Juan “El Gitano” and his son, Moises, all from Galaroza, Luis, Carmelo and Juan Antonio from Fuenteheridos and Manolo from Aracena. Lorena, Emilio’s granddaughter, the only woman on the team, was helping her dad load up the cork onto the trailer.
Emilio’s wife, Maria came with us too. It was touching to see that at 82 she still marvels at the beauty of the cork oaks and the skill involved in the harvest. Emilio talks about trees as if they were people, friends or family, and he treats them with the utmost respect. Since he fell from the chestnut tree he has been forbidden from climbing up trees or wielding a cork cutting axe but the minute he spotted anyone who was struggling to work out how approach a tree he would explain what to do and I could see he was just itching to get his hands on the axe. It’s an intuitive job that requires brawn, sensitivity and the ability to judge each cut.
The alcornoque has a distinct and subtle smell when the bark has been stripped and the pale flesh feels cool and damp to the touch. You can see the sap trickle down the limbs of the tree.
Emilio is a larger than life character so he booms out instructions to the cork harvesters in the cuadrilla. It’s all good-humoured banter – cachondeo. It’s what I love about being with the cuadrillas.
José and Mayte keep black Iberian pigs on the farm – these are guarded by their very lovely mastín, Titán.
At La Caseta there is a mixture of ages and it was especially impressive to see the likes of Juan or Luis shin up the mature trees and start cutting the cork from 25 feet up, in the fork of the cork oak’s trunk – la trepa.
The harvesters had a break, down next to the camino real that passes through the farm. It is the path that would originally have gone from the south of Jabugo, famed for its Iberian ham, to Cortegana, once an important cork town. Now there is a big main road that crosses it and many parts of the path have become overgrown or are simply fenced off. Emilio is a staunch defender of the right to use these ancient public paths that criss-cross the Sierra and he knows them intimately because he has walked them all.
Work resumes until lunchtime when we all gather in the hilltop cortijo for a beer and a tapa of home produced cured ham and lomo.
My second block of work was with Manuel Valle’s cuadrilla. Manuel is known locally as “Cano” because of his fair hair and white skin; all of his family are fair. Cano is one of the few younger men (he’s 47) who make a living exclusively from farming – this is only possible because he is extremely hard working and juggles various farms and does all kinds of agricultural jobs.
When I worked with his cuadrilla they were harvesting cork at a farm called Buen Vino, near Los Marines. There were three on cork stripping duties, Cano, his friend Rafael, “El Pindo”, and Manuel Santos Carvajal. Ángel and Salvador were on rajando (trimming) and juntando (gathering) duties. The entire team was from Galaroza. Danielillo, Cano’s elderly uncle, was also present and sat quietly in the shade beside the mountain of cork that was being accumulated.
I was spared the 5 am start thanks to my friend, Iluminado, who gave me a lift to the farm and although I was there by about 8.30 the morning was already starting to feel very hot. Cork harvesters start at 7.00 am as soon as it’s light and generally work through till 2.30pm. By the time we finished that day it was almost 40 degrees!
I headed down the hill towards where the main Seville/ Portugal road passes the northern marches of the farm, following the sound of axes and followed by a herd of grunting, snuffling pigs who clearly thought I had come to feed them. The men were working close to the road and I was greeted by the barking of “Body”, Cano’s dog, which looked like a bodeguero; a bit like a large long legged Jack Russell. Once the men had sat down for a cigarette break, Body settled down and seemed to get used to me. I was reminded not to leave my rucksack with the sound kit on the ground, as the pigs would carry it off to investigate, after all I might have brought sandwiches.
About 11 am the descorchadores break for their “piece” as we’d say in Scotland: bread, cheese, chorizo, salchichón, tinned fish, oranges and apples, which are peeled with the wooden handled knives that all county folks carry in the Sierra. The men carry green, insulated 5 litre water containers and drink the whole lot in the course of their shift and there is much conversation about the prospect of cold beer.
Afterwards the men started work at the top of the hill and the heat was beginning to intensify. The cork oaks on this part of the farm had been affected by “Culebra”, which is the larva of a beetle, and the beetle itself (Coroebus Undatus) which get under the bark and cause the tree damage. Culebra literally means snake but it is in fact a small white worm – but it does leave dark, squiggly lines, which stand out from the tan background on the freshly stripped trunks. When Cano spotted the larvae he shouted to me to come over to have a look. Some of the men form the Sierra have worked harvesting cork in Catalunia and talked about how in the North they spray the trees as soon as the cork is harvested – so there there is someone in the cuadrilla solely dedicated to doing this. This doesn’t happen in the Sierra, it’s expensive and most farms with cork oak are far from being big commercial concerns, far from the centres of wine making.
All the alcornoques are stripped, no matter the size of tree, or the quality of it’s cork. This means that some are harder work than others to strip… the men look forward to and enjoy the satisfaction of harvesting of good quality cork, as it comes away easily in large sections, cut first with the axe and then eased of by the jurga, a long wooden pole made from Eucalyptus. This is team work. On the other hand the men dread a bad oak and the difficulty entailed in removing the bark safely. The jurgas have blunt points and in the case of the one used by Cano’s cuadrilla, it also has a forked end, which is both unusual and useful.
Since I’ve come back to Scotland I have been editing the photos I took and reviewing the footage I filmed; thinking about what the narration might be for a short film. I have been making drawings too, portraits of the cork harvesters and as I draw the details of each face, I ponder the world of cork and cork oaks and how different the landscape and vegetation is from where I was brought up on Kintyre. But I am also struck by something intensely familiar; some of the harvesters remind me of my father; wiry, skinny but incredibly strong, accustomed to hard, physical work in all weathers with their “farmers arms” and a tan that stops at the neck – and when I see Emilio’s muckle hands I am reminded of my father’s. A strange connection across climes and landscapes, so not really that odd for me to have become so interested in these wonderful trees and the work of those who care for them.
Jan Nimmo © 2014