Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The hills are alive - with Cork Oaks

Between Les Arcs-sur-Argens and the Mediterranean is a range of high, tree-covered hills - Le Massif des Maures - so named for their dark, shadowy shape to the south.

To the east is another range of hills - great jagged red-earth peaks and valleys reminiscent of central Australia - called the Esterel.

A cork oak in the Maures with scars from bark removal.
Together these areas - wooded with thousands cork oaks - played a key role in the region's thriving Cotes de Provence wine industry.

They allowed wine to be matured in bottles by providing corks to seal them.

Known as le joyau des forets - the joy of the forests - the trees supported a major cork industry from the 18th century, turning out between 1000 and 2500 tonnes of cork a year.

The thick cork oak bark is harvested between June and August each year.

If you go for a walk in any of the hills near Les Arcs, you can spot where the bark has been lifted.

Once removed, the bark is scraped to get rid of knots and bumps, then boiled for around one and a half hours to soften it, before being stored in a damp cellar, ready for working.

The square corks are rounded on this lathe-like machine before being stamped with the winery's logo.

In time the cork is flattened and cut into cork-sized rectangles before being clamped onto a machine that looks like a wood-turning lathe where the corners are pared away.

Finished corks awaiting stamping and bagging for distribution.

The corks are then cleaned, bleached and stamped as required by the various wineries.

The Var was once the largest producer of corks in the whole of France - and it was second only to Portugal across the globe for the number of cork oak trees.

By 1874 there were 74 cork-making industries across the Var employing 1200 people.

But with foreign competition and  since the mid 20th century, the growing use of plastic corks  - not to mention the more recent screw-tops - the industry has declined to such an extent that only two factories now remain in Var.

The cork from a delicious 2011 Mouton Cadet from Bordeaux.
In France, the lower-priced range of wines tend to come sealed with plastic corks.

However the more exclusive domaines and more expensive wines are still sealed with their own specially-stamped corks.

For me, the pleasure of hearing a bottle uncorked with its distinctive 'pop' adds to the sensual delight of a good meal.

* In Ballarat, Victoria, there is a single cork oak growing on a raised bank at the end of the street where I live. It bears a plaque, naming it as a 'significant tree' on the city's historic tree register.

* Information courtesy of the Musee des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Musee ATP) at Draguignan.

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