July in Extremadura has been hot, and that suits the corcheros. They spend summer on the road, lodging in hotels, travelling from finca to finca to harvest the bark of the cork oaks (alcornoques) that dot the landscape. Andy watched as they went to work on his neighbour Fidel's trees.
Cork is a valuable crop in the economy of the dehesa. But it takes time. Fidel can harvest his cork trees only once every 10 to 12 years. A tree's first cut is used to make granulated cork, for products such as tiles and coasters. It's not particularly valuable, but once the tree is older and at least 30cm in diameter, it can be stripped. The second, and all subsequent harvests, are called secondarios. They are used to produce corks (tapones) for the wine industry, and that's where the real money is.
Once collected, the sheets of cork are bundled into quintales, a traditional measure roughly equivalent to a hundredweight. A quintale currently fetches between 80 and 100 euros. As a tree owner, you are approached by an agent or cork supplier and offered a price based on his estimate of the yield. He goes low, you go higher, and eventually you agree on a price. Cork oaks are protected by the government, so you have to get permission from the Forestal, who inspect the trees and sign off the harvest.
The stripping is done only in July and August. The higher the temperature the better—this lets the trees breathe and loosens the bark, allowing it to come off in unbroken sheets. It's a gruelling business, but the corcheros have a real camaraderie, joking and shouting as they harvest. They work from around 6am to 3 pm, then again from 6pm until dark, seven days a week. The window of opportunity is narrow, so it's full tilt while the sun shines. At least they get to work in the shade.
Their only tool is a small axe. It has a sharp blade at one end and the shaft is flattened at the other like a crowbar, used to pry off the bark. There's a lot of skill involved, not only in getting the bark off in one piece but in knowing how much can be removed without damaging the trees.
Fidel wasn't saying what his yield or payment was, but by the end there were four truckloads waiting to be taken to the factory. Not a bad windfall once a decade.