The Cork Harvest

“Nicholaaaaas”. The accent was firmly on the last syllable.


ch-p1A group of village elders were keeping well back inside the open door of Niño’s Bar to escape the rain. I crossed over under the wet February sky – something was up. They poured me a glass of wine and placed a handful of peanuts on the counter. The Andaluz never drank “a copa” without something to go with it. “You’ve got a cork harvest this summer” said Joselete the postmistress’ husband. “I have too, and the buyers have begun their visits”.


A cork harvest is a huge event, and I had the biggest stand of cork oaks in the village. Our farm, Finca el Moro, had nearly a thousand trees. It only happens once every 9 years and was a bonanza of inconceivable proportions on the local scale of things. I’d learnt as much as I could about it all over the previous 6 months knowing that at some stage I would have to negotiate with the buyers who would give me no quarter in their efforts to obtain my first ever harvest at the most advantageous price. And how I acquitted myself would be discussed at great length under the chestnut trees in the square by this same group of elder statesmen in their flat caps and grey and black stripy trousers, leaning on their chestnut sticks. But here they were ready to offer advice in their own roundabout way.


The advice came with liberal doses of self interest, suggestions as how to harvest, how to sell, and who to, came thick and fast. I was to be sure never to allow prospective buyers a chance to sample the cork – to test its thickness (Kalar). Part of the game was that they had to assess its calibre by inspection only. “If you let them cut it and they don’t like it the next buyer will see the sampled tree and realize that someone else has been there before and turned it down”. They never gave anything away in negotiation until suddenly a brown horny hand shot out and a deal was struck. Alfredo, a retired farmer, his sons now did the work and his wife sold the lottery tickets, was leaning on his usual corner of the bar counter. His contented belly and air of authority marking him out as a man of substance. He said quietly, “The buyers are hungry Nicholas. The harvest in Portugal is poor this year. Don’t rush it, but have it sold by Easter”.


That gave me 6 Each cork factory in the sierra, of which there were 5 or 6, employed its own team of cork cutters. The price arrived at was for cork on the tree with all costs of the harvest for the factory owner. This meant you had also to take into consideration the skill of the axemen employed by the individual buyers to strip the trees. An axe in unskilled hands could very easily damage a tree beyond repair. The huge centuries old cork oaks only willingly give up their valuable outer layer during the two months of high summer – July and August, but each factory liked to have its annual quota contracted by spring and after this point the price might then start to go down.


There were only four of us in the village that year who were due to harvest: Joselete, myself and two neighbours on either side of me, Antonio Luis and the village spinster Inmaculada. Of the four, myself and Inmaculada had by far the lions share. It was Inmaculada that I met on the rough track that wound up and down through the chestnut groves as I drove slowly home, as a result of both the potholes and my afternoon spent in the bar. I didn’t know her well. She had a reputation as a miser and rather awkward with it, but had seemed approachable on the few occasions that we had met. On impulse, I stopped and broached the subject of the harvest, thinking that teaming up with an awkward miser might be no bad thing in the labyrinthine negotiations leading to its sale. Did she have any idea of this year’s price? Who had bought her cork 9 years ago? Had she been approached this year already? She was plainly delighted to discuss it – as in the very masculine world of village agriculture she was at some disadvantage. “Inmaculada, as cork is in demand this year do you not think that selling our two harvests as one lot might be to our advantage, we would attract all the buyers with the quantity that we would be offering.” We agreed there and then to join forces and glean as much information as possible from our various contacts. I was so relieved I had someone with whom to share the responsibility.


A few days later we met again, Inmaculada said: “My last harvest was sold to “Chivu Negro” (the black goat), and he said then I should expect the price to double every harvest.” “Well, his senior axeman this year “Caballo Loco” (the wild horse), is a friend of mine, I’ll see if I can find out what they’re offering” I replied. We all had nicknames, essential in the tiny mountain villages where everyone shared a christian or surname. The visits began. The buyers would arrive, quite unannounced, in a fleet of cars filled with henchmen. With always “una cara dura delante” (a local front-man), on commission, to do the talking. It was often impossible to know who was actually the Boss. It was all quite deliberate and designed to intimidate. One had to be constantly on guard that they did not, with a couple of deft axe strokes, leave their calling card and “kalar” the trees securing the grove for themselves. After looking at the trees they would stand in a loose group and ask me what price I wanted – never giving me anything to go on nor even offering a price. I would stall and mumble. They would cajole and threaten – the cork was not good, too much worm, too thin and I would have trouble selling it. Then they would go piling into their jeeps, leaving their telephone number and a faint air of menace. And always, always, saying that it would be better to deal separately than stick together with Inmaculada – which only served to strengthen my resolve. Our enquiries began to bear fruit. Inmaculada and I managed to get indications of prices from the surrounding villages, over a copa or two in the bar in the evening or, (in Inmaculada’s case), even going so far as to charm the bank teller in the village rural bank who saw all the contracts that had already been signed.


My intuition was paying off – she was a formidable ally. A cork factory from outside the sierra were the last to visit, from the lovely Templar town of Jerez de los Caballeros (literally Jerez of the horsemen, the horsemen being the Knights of St. James) on the southern edge of Extremadura, about 60 miles away. “They must be hungry” said Inmaculada bobbing her head demurely with the little smile playing on the corner of her mouth that she had when she felt things were going well. It was a family visit. A patriarch and various sons, cousins and nephews, all of whom were employed one way or another through the short but intense cork season.


He had been involved with cork all his life and was happy to point out good trees and bad ones, how a cutter had done a good job, how another had bit in too deep, and how to recognize the worm. He enjoyed his visits whether he bought it or not. A man secure with his knowledge. His was not an intimidating visit. We invited them back the following Sunday after Mass to discuss the sale. “Now you must pay me a visit on Saturday” said Inmaculada “and we shall discuss price and our other requirements and have everything agreed before their return” “What other requirements?” “Well, weighing every day after it is cut so it does not dry out. We could lose up to 10%. Also they have a habit of giving a big price but then allowing themselves a discount. That’s purely so the men can boast amongst themselves in the bar that they got the better of the buyer”. Awkward, miserly and puritanical. I was in good hands.
Passing a beautiful white climbing rose, its gnarled stem breaking through the cobbled courtyard and an old terracotta wine jar full of sweet smelling freesias, I entered the warren-like house. Inmaculada lived in the family home. Her father had died over two harvests ago – so that was at least 18 years – and she single- handedly looked after the farm with its chestnut trees, flock of sheep, various properties that she rented out, and her cork.


On top of all this she was full of ideas and was currently drying and framing wild flowers, collected by herself, from the surrounding country for sale in Seville. Her Mother and the two Aunts, always dressed in widow’s black for long dead husbands, lived with her as well. They stayed permanently on a huge sofa in one corner of the big kitchen, three black crows all in varying states of dignity. At one end of the kitchen, light poured through a stained glass window and a small door led out onto an uneven brick floored terrace giving a panoramic view of the terracotta tiled roofs of the village to the chestnut groves beyond. We sat on two straight backed wobbly chairs to discuss our tactics. Having agreed the various conditions we felt necessary for the contract of sale we established our asking price allowing ourselves a good margin to come down on to account for the certain haggling. “Porque siempre tienes que quitar algo” You’ll always have to take something off, they’ll expect it. Cork has an ancient measuring system.


There are four arrobas to the quintal and 25 livras to the arroba. There are approximately 20 quintales to the tonne. We had decided to ask for a simple contract that involved no discounts, weighing at the end of each day, payment immediately after the grove was harvested and we would accept a price of between 7 – 8000 pesetas per quintal (about £35) having asked initially 9000 pesetas. “Now, you do all the talking. They will expect it as you are the man but don’t agree anything until I nod, is that clear?” ” Yes Inmaculada, as clear as day”. I would agree nothing without the signal.


The great day came. Sunday morning in the plaza, a weak spring sun shining from a washed blue sky. Women coming back from Mass, crocheted shawls wrapped tight around bony shoulders, the usual groups of men leaning against the doors of the bars in clean shirts, a cup of coffee or copa of the aguardiente (literally fire water, an aniseed based spirit) in hand. The thump of tractors and clip clop of laden mules. I waited, nervously, for the buyers return. “You’ll be waiting for those foreigners that are buying the cork this year” said Ramon. Heartening to hear someone from 60 miles away classified as a foreigner but disconcerting that everyone seemed to know we were hoping to contract our cork this morning. We thought that we had kept it quiet. But then the group of elders that spent most of their time playing dominoes in Isidra’s bar or just sitting under the trees watching never missed much. It was said that they even knew the registration numbers of all the cars in the village. Joselete and Antonio Luis who had broken ranks and sold their cork to one of the first buyers to visit, looked sideways at me hoping that we would not get a better price than they had obtained. Their wives were already complaining at their ineptitude with numbers. Our enquiries told us they had got 6500 pesetas per quintal (£27) but with a 10% discount to the buyer. This was really not more than 5850pts (£24), and not weighed on the spot but on arrival at the buyers factory. Plenty of opportunity for tampering had been Inmaculada’s prissy comment. “Here they are” said Ramon as three cars with registration from outside the village parked in the plaza. “Hey hey where are you going, they’ll want a coffee after such a long drive.” I had been hurrying out to shepherd them up to Inmaculada’s house but I was denying everyone the opportunity for some excitement. They were determined to see me deal with them in public. Reluctantly I turned back and ordered the coffees. “Now why don’t we agree everything with you and then we’ll go and talk to that woman”. The opening shot was fired in front of the whole bar. There were six of them and my mouth was dry. Not one of the villagers was looking at me. Every one was seemingly deep in conversation with his neighbour. But they were not missing a word. A slow smile was on Alfredo’s face. The same Alfredo who had given me the original advice to sell before Easter.


This was theatre. I managed a mumbled “No”, and that we had arranged to meet in her house and she was waiting for us so why didn’t we finish our coffees and get straight on with everything there. The disappointment as we left the bar was palpable. ch-p6The same uneven terrace with eight uncomfortable wobbly chairs but the three crows had been parked elsewhere for the occasion. She didn’t miss a trick as our two chairs even had the sun at their backs. We sat and made stilted conversation: about the view across the rooftops, how there were big cork harvests in other villages, that they really had enough already this year, and if we didn’t want to sell to them it didn’t really matter. I was horrified as I had heard from one of my contacts that the two other buyers who had been very interested in our cork had bought all they needed for this year. They had been my backup if all was to go wrong this morning. But that same small smile hovered at the corner of Inmaculada’s mouth who sat in black, head slightly bowed, her hands folded in her lap for all the world as if she was listening to the sermon. She took the bluster for what it was – just trying to unsettle us. It was obvious that we had to make the opening bid. I started as agreed suggesting rather timidly that I thought 9000 was about right and that I had heard they had paid that in other villages. All of a sudden it seemed rather a lot. A chorus of six voices broke out that I had no idea, they had never even paid close to that anywhere, that at that price we could not hope to do any business at all. I stared at the swifts flying past the terrace to give myself some time, and to await the counter offer. None came. Just a terrible silence. I was on the point of saying well all right, then how about 8500 when out of the corner of my eye I caught the firm shake of the head and if there had been a table under which to kick my leg Inmaculada would have done it. I kept silent. Their frontman – Antonio, the dustman, from the neighbouring village of Linares – now became the mediator. It was in his interest that a deal should be done because the team of cutters were directly his responsibility and the more cork cut the more his cutters (and him) would earn. A tall bearded man with a deep powerful voice, he said, “Well, now 9000 is far too much for the rather poor cork you have on offer, I think 7000 would be about right”.The smile was back at the corner of Inmaculada’s mouth. They had at last opened their bidding and with a price that was already between the 7000 – 8000 that we had agreed we wanted. My confidence came flooding back. I listed all the advantages of dealing with us finally saying that we could not possibly accept 7000 but 8500 would be fine. Silence. “We could manage another 100 pesetas and we will give you a good deposit here and now in cash” a large wad of notes were flashed across the table. Inmaculada’s eyes gleamed but her face betrayed nothing. 


“No, that’s not enough, deposit or not, we could not accept less than 8000”. Silence. Had I gone too far. One of the brothers (obviously the one who did all the paperwork) began to shuffle his papers and start to put them back in the battered old briefcase. The swifts continued their screaming flight. It was Antonio again who broke the silence. “Now come on there is not much between you all now why can’t we agree to split the difference and call it 7450 per quintal, come on put your hand to it” I scanned Inmaculada’s face for a trace of a nod but nothing. The father was standing there ready with his hand outstretched. Still no sign. In desperation I could think of nothing else to say, an actor looking for a prompt finally managing “But that’s complicated why don’t we just round it up to 7500 and be done with it?” Simultaneously a frown passed across the fathers face as Inmaculada gave an almost invisible bob of the head. I stuck out my hand. A slight hesitation but he took it and shook it firmly.

All was smiles. We had sold the cork, and extracted the last 50 pesetas.

The Harvest

ch2High hot summer in the sierra. Brilliant blue sky, heat and dust, yellow grass under the grey green olive trees and the dogs lying fatly in the deep shade. The cool of the morning with the hollow call of the hoopoe and first light at seven. Knowing that the sun will force a retreat behind thick cool whitewashed walls for lunch and the siesta before you can emerge again at seven o’clock for the evening chores. A time to pace yourself and look for shade. A column of battered Renault 4’s and ancient Seat’s came up the drive in dawn’s bleary light. The dogs in a frenzy at this unaccustomed breaking of the morning still. A babble of voices,
“Juan are you sure this is right?” “Do we leave our lunch in the car or take it with us?” “Can’t we drive any further I don’t see any cork trees here.” “Juan, how many cantimploras (terracotta water jugs) have we got between us.” “I reckon this is just a long walk in the country.” “Lets sharpen axes here, and wait for the amo (owner) to come”. “He won’t be out of bed yet”. “Kiko’s not here with the landrover.” “What’s new it never starts!”
The cutters had arrived. Six of them, along with two drivers to haul the cork out and the “gatherer” whose job it was to put the cork in piles to be loaded onto the landrovers. Every member of the team had his own very specific job. Juanito was the senior axeman. I arrived at this by a process of deduction as he was, at the start, the only one to look me in the eye. “Well let’s go and I’ll show you where we start”. They followed me across the neat lines of the olive groves in the grey early light carrying their axes, ladders, long poles called “hurgas” sharpened at one end and their little leather rucksacks that contained their lunch and their cantimploras of water. There were mutterings and murmurings behind me, all of them well aware that the “amo” was an outsider. Would I know how to behave? “We know what to do if the amo complains that our axes are going in too deep, don’t we?”    “Yeah we leave it to next year” Loud laughter and sideways glances to see how I took it. This was setting the ground rules and wasn’t meant unkindly.

They were professionals, but knew that all owners were anxious that trees were not damaged during cutting. The last thing they wanted was the amo breathing down their necks all day. But I had learnt that criticism rarely resulted in what you had hoped. It was better to praise what was well done first and then to follow with a suggestion as to how to improve the rest. They left their rucksacks and belongings in a neat pile, and wrapped up well against the morning chill. They stood waiting expectantly, passing round the wineskin for a “buchito de vino” (mouthful of wine) I was expected to say a few words. “I hope the trees willingly give up their cork, and that they are left with clean shoes and no ties round their necks”. This was cork-cutting slang and referred to taking the cork right off to the bottom of the tree and leaving a good clean cut at the top. They started. They worked in pairs. One man went up the tree, the one with the best balance. They worked without any safety harness and many of the branches to be stripped reached at least thirty feet from the ground.

The axes, handed down from father to son, were razor sharp with a curved saracen blade. The handles, works of art, each one individually fashioned from oak or tree heather root are shaped with a slight curve and filed to a flat point. Similar to a tyre lever. Stripped for action the team were timeless. The axe used for centuries; the grey and black striped trousers, the standard
country dress. A broad wide belt to holster the axe whilst climbing and moving through the grove. Scraps of cloth tied indian fashion around the head as a sweatband; nut brown torsos used to hard work, and hands and forearms stained black from cork juice. Spellbound I watched in that grey light the beginning of my first harvest. I’ll be a lucky man to witness it more than three times in my life. One man high up cutting around the neck the other on his knees starting the vertical cut.

Each axe stroke ends with a twist of the wrist to lift the cork. The grunt of the axeman, followed by the squeak of the cork as it lifts from the bark underneath. The squeak followed by the satisfied sigh from the cutter as he knows from that sound that the tree is ready to yield its harvest. With the axe handle a corner is lifted away from the ochre bark underneath. The hurga – a long 10 foot pole – gently levers the cork away with a faint tearing sound, like trying to remove a label without leaving any behind. Until with the sound of “Corcho” as much as 250lbs of cork thumps to the ground. If you are lucky it all comes off in one piece – “en canuto”. You can sense the tree giving a shiver from its shoulders to its toes. It releases a wonderful fresh, green, sappy, newborn, smell as the bark sees the light for the first time in nine years. The most hardened axeman will pause for reflection, admire the tree in its new ochre coat, and pronounce “un trabajo bonito” – a pretty piece of work. At 10 o’clock, lunch time. Time to open the leather rucksack and see what the wife had packed the night before. To take a sip of wine all in the deep shade afforded by the trees. Lunch hardly varied. Bread, sausage, tortilla and cucumbers (our vegetable gardens were all full of them at that time of year) and of course “cachondeo” – the art of insult without giving offence. The Irish have it, but it is in the Andaluz, like their axes, that it is honed to perfection, ” Hey Roberto guapo, como fue anoche, nada como siempre no?” and it is, of course, quite without translation. But it related to the reality of his success with girls not quite living up to his expectations.

It is immensely satisfying work. The amo is reaping a bonanza and therefore it would be a hard man who was not goodhumoured during the harvest. Traditionally the cutters earn more for this very seasonal and skilled work than any other temporary agricultural work during the year. And it is a beautiful scene appreciated by all. Slowly, one by one, the newly revealed ochre trunks are exposed to the early morning sunlight. The only concession to the twentieth century was a Landrover to haul the cork the three kilometers to the main road rather than a team of muleteers. To my astonishment a very familiar blue landrover appeared with the steering wheel on the wrong side. “Recognize it, you sold it to my Uncle three years ago”. ” It’s the only Scottish Landrover hauling cork this year I bet” I said. My original Landrover that had made the first trip eight years ago when it was already 15 years old. On arrival it had snapped its chassis. But it had returned and was making someone a living once more. I had stuck it together any number of times and sold it for scrap and now the irrepressible Kiko was there with it, still sticking it together and using it for the cork in summer and loads of firewood in winter.
The harvest took ten days and had its own routine.

ch3The arrival every morning in half light to frenzied barking, the steady thud squeak thump of axe entering cork and cork hitting ground carried out quietly whilst we enjoyed the freshness of the morning and the slow illumination of the newly revealed trees . The inexorable climb of the sun that led to mid morning lunch. Then the second half which was louder. Full of the “cachondeo”, plenty of social stops for the passing of the water jug and tobacco; stories and boasts of hunting exploits in pursuit of wild boar. Endless ribbing of young Eugenio always yawning- which had a lot to do with his recently acquired girlfriend. Roberto young and handsome, Preening, striking poses with his axe and with the most inventive volley of expletives- all of which involved the virgin Mary one way or another. Zachariah, a malevolent elf, somewhere high up on a branch looking down through black eyes. He who had forgotten his smile. Juanito with the luxuriant moustache, who took enormous pride in his skill with the axe, and who worked with it almost throughout the year.

The cork followed by pruning the chestnut trees from November to March then the olives in March and April. Quick to point out poor axeman-ship in others, Juanito was consequently treated with some diffidence by the rest. Jose Maria, a bulky dishevelled kindly man, who looked for places where the world was quiet. He would spend his evenings in his vegetable garden.

Sat on a stool between his rows of tomatoes sipping aguardiente from a dainty carved cork sipping spoon, and who found the time to carve me a whole set of spoons from a ladle big enough for the gazpacho to a tiny dram size spoon for a sip of whisky. Francisco, constantly attacked by ants. Hopping high in a tree with complete disregard for danger as he peeled off his trousers to shake them out, accompanied by uproarious laughter from the rest of the crew. “It’s just to show us his Mum gives him clean pants every day.” Then at 2 o’clock with the sun beating down we would gather under the weighing tree to weigh that days harvest. Another part of the ritual. They were paid by what they had cut, and I was happily adding up the daily harvests. An ancient set of scales, La Romana, were hung from a high branch. A platform suspended underneath on which we could pile 3 arrobas ( about 150 kgs).

I would stand by the gatherer whose job it was to note each lot. We would both have to agree that the arm of the romana had reached the horizontal before the order was given to remove that lot and start to load another. The last tree stripped and the last lot weighed. It is customary for the amo to provide drinks and tapas. They had timed it to perfection. Early enough to stop but late enough in the day to be too late to move on to the next grove. We sat drinking and eating home cured jamon serrano that appropriately was from our black pigs that had been fattened on the acorns from the very same grove, christening Jose Maria’s spoons with shots of aguardiente .”Nicholaaas, what are you going to do with all the money? Buy another grove and we can all come back next year”.

The next morning I sat high up in the grove watching the sun rise up above the sierra. Listening to the wake-up call of the hoopoes echoing across the valley as the last of the owls went to bed. Savouring the silence and the cathedral-like peace that came from these great trees. With a great satisfaction, which comes tinged with regret, I rose and walked slowly back to the cortijo touching the trunks of the trees as I passed.

With the help of all of them I had successfully sold and harvested my cork. It would not be repeated for another nine years. to be continued … the story of the cork and follow it through Don Julian’s factory to the Bodegas (wineries) that buys the corks.

Finally it ending up in a bottle on the Dinner table and the result of all that work is consigned to the waste-paper basket.