The Farm Stories
Written by Nick Tudor
The Cork Harvest – Continues
High 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.
The 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.