Natural cork, lovingly grown in Portugal, is used as a component in each RALLY ROUND model. Cork is mainly used to make thick insoles, which are not only lightweight, but also take the shape of a person's feet each time they are worn, making them an important part of creating stress-free shoes.
The man who knows the will of the cork oaks
António Ildefonso started doing what he loves the most when he was 17 years old. He is 62 now. For 45 years he has been a “corticeiro” – a cork worker, or cork stripper, the person who strips the bark from cork oaks. That’s where cork (cortiça) comes from. It’s a 100 per cent natural material, produced according to ancient and sustainable ways. When António began this activity, in the late 70´s, Portugal was a poor, backward country and a newborn democracy. Over four decades later, almost everything has changed in Portugal, which has become a member of the European Union. But little has changed in António's work.
The “sobreiro” (cork oak) is still one of Portugal's natural treasures, and the iconic tree of the Alentejo, the great plains region in the south-center of the country. The way cork oaks are stripped remains the same, and has no secrets for skilled workers like António.
"My job is to cut the cork and take it from the tree. We use an axe, as has always been done. First you have to cut [the bark] off the tree, and then pull it out. We usually know where to cut, but all trees are different. You have to understand each one",
explains António with the typical deep Alentejo accent, and words that are only used in that region and are impossible to translate.
It's hard work. It always has been. "It's only done when the weather is really hot, so that the cork can dry naturally. And there are little bugs in the trees that are a bit of a nuisance. And if the ants come… they’ll bite like hell. You have to put your socks over your trousers so that the ants don't sting your legs", laughs António, sharing one of the tricks of the trade that he learnt from his elders.
Cork is no longer a well-kept secret from Portugal. "Portuguese cork is the best in the world. The cork I harvest might be shipped to America or to France... the best french champagne uses portuguese cork", says António, who likes to see this product recognised internationally. Portugal produces about half of all the cork sold globally.
But the future worries this veteran “corticeiro”.
"Every year trees are lost, because of drought and disease. And it takes a long time before you can harvest a cork oak. Some of the trees I harvest are over a hundred years old... On the other hand, as it rains less and less, this is a very uncertain job. I used to strip cork oaks from May until September. Now, I do it for one or two months. Because it doesn't rain much, there's less work. So, there are many people who know this trade but have left it. Those who have a stable job, don't leave it to harvest cork for a month or two."
A cork oak can only be stripped every nine years. But that depends on the climate and the tree.
It has a will of it’s own. "You only take cork when the tree allows you to. To know if it is good for harvesting, you give the tree a blow with the axe. If the bark opens up, it's good; if it doesn't, you must wait another year. Before you hit the tree with the axe you never know what's under there”.
The Alentejo is known for the open fields with cork oaks, the great food, the heat, and the slow tempo way of life. You don’t hurry things in the Alentejo, and you can't hurry the natural cycle of a sobreiro. It takes men like António to understand it.