By STANLEY REED
Published: January 23, 2013
ESTREMOZ, PORTUGAL — We spent Christmas in a cabin on a hillside in the cork oak forest that clothes much of southern and central Portugal. We hiked along streams awakened by the winter rains. After dinner we walked under shockingly bright stars, undimmed by light pollution, listening to owls and the tinkle of bells from goats.
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“The cork oak ecosystems have high biodiversity of plants and fauna — the highest in Europe and one of the highest in the world,” said Luisa Ferreira Nunes, a forestry expert at the agriculture school of the Polytechnic Institute of Castelo Branco in Portugal.
For centuries, cork oaks (Quercus suber) have been widely cultivated in Southern Europe and North Africa for their thick, spongy bark. They are handsome evergreen trees, often covered with silvery lichen, that resemble the live oaks in the American South.
Cork oaks are well adapted to hot, dry weather. They create a rich habitat in what otherwise would be a near desert. These southern forests look somewhat austere, but they have thousands of plant species, including orchids, as well as exotic birds like hoopoes with big orange crowns, and griffon vultures.
The trees also provide well-paid work for people living on farmsteads and in scattered hilltop towns. Each of these places in the Alentejo region, like Estremoz and Elvas, has its own medieval fortress and a market square with restaurants that serve local fare like stewed pork with clams, and garlic and bread soup.
Every 10 years, foresters strip off the outer layer of bark with short-handled axes. The trees are left with bare, reddish trunks where the bark was shorn. But if the work is properly done, the bark grows back so it can be harvested again in a decade. White numerals are painted on the trees as reminders for when their next turn comes up.
Philip Mollet, who manages the 540-hectare, or 1,334-acre, family cork farm where we stayed, hires a crew of eight every summer to peel about 10 percent of his trees. Over 10 days, they usually produce about 45 tons of bark(…)
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