Cork and cheese in Spain

A cork bark-carrying donkey (above); and a man harvesting the bark of a cork tree (right), both in Spain. Spanish towns with stark-white buildings (top) dot the countryside amid cork forests in regions such as Catalonia, Andalusia and Extremadura.
Spanish towns with stark-white buildings (above) dot the countryside amid cork forests in regions such as Catalonia, Andalusia and Extremadura.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A cork bark-carrying donkey (above); and a man harvesting the bark of a cork tree (right), both in Spain. Spanish towns with stark-white buildings (top) dot the countryside amid cork forests in regions such as Catalonia, Andalusia and Extremadura.
A cork bark-carrying donkey (above); and a man harvesting the bark of a cork tree, both in Spain. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A cork bark-carrying donkey (above); and a man harvesting the bark of a cork tree (right), both in Spain. Spanish towns with stark-white buildings (top) dot the countryside amid cork forests in regions such as Catalonia, Andalusia and Extremadura.
A cork bark-carrying donkey; and a man harvesting the bark of a cork tree (above), both in Spain. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

New eco-tour takes travellers to Spain's cork-producing regions and offers a taste of their cuisines too

NEW YORK • From June to August, three rural regions across Spain are transformed into otherworldly landscapes: Trees in the heart of the cork forest are sheared of their bark, becoming brick-red sentinels with leafy tops that guard the woods.

And this year, for the first time, visitors are able to experience the harvest with them.

A new eco-tour allows travellers to watch the cork harvest and later follow donkeys carrying towering loads to one of the traditional pueblos blancos - towns whose buildings are painted stark white and which dot the countryside in Catalonia, Andalusia and Extremadura.

The tour, called From Bark To Bottle, leads participants on an 11-day journey through Spain's cork trail to discover the lives of the harvesters, the forest's biodiversity and the cultural and gastronomic heritage of the area - in essence, the cork's path from tree to wine.

Cork is a renewable resource. Every year, farmers go to a different part of their land to harvest, returning to the same trees only every nine years.

The tour, the brainchild of the United States-based Cork Forest Conservation Alliance and the eco-tourism companies Two Birds-One Stone and Namaste Viajes, lets 40 wine-loving tourists a year (10 on each of four tours) experience the cork harvest and its cultural, economic and social nuances.

"We want people to come home from the trip having fallen in love with the people of the cork forest," said Mr Patrick Spencer, executive director of the alliance.

The first leg of the US$3,500 (S$4,720) trip explores Extremadura's harvest in the south-west of Spain.

Farmers there, in the heart of the cork forest, remove bark from the same trees used by their great- grandfathers.

The intricate process takes only a few cuts before the harvesters peel the bark away like a sharpening pencil.

In the expansive savannas there, visitors spend four days watching the harvest, eating lunch with farmers and trying their hand at slicing jamon, the salty slab of cured pork that Spain is famous for, on a farm where pigs are raised eating cork oak acorns.

Nights are spent in either a high-end hotel tucked in a refurbished mediaeval building or an agritourismo, a country estate nestled among cork trees.

Days five and six take travellers farther south to Andalusia, into Los Alcornocales National Park, the largest national park in Spain housing cork forestry.

The focus shifts to food, with visits to producers of artisanal cheese, wine and olive oil.

The evening can be spent attending group dinners while watching burros carry loads of cork bark into town as the sun sets.

Two vans are available to participants, so early risers have a chance to head back to the hotel, while others can enjoy a late evening out.

The trip ends in Catalonia, in the mossy and forested north-east, with a visit to an almost 164ha privately owned cork forest near the region's rocky coastline, a sensory experience at the Cork Institute, a cork factory excursion, a small-production cava- maker tour and a chance to eat fish bought that same morning at a fish auction.

Stops include tiny towns the typical tourist does not see, such as the ninth-century Ronda, the historic trading centre with cobblestone roads and ancient churches that is modern bullfighting's birthplace. Imagine a city divided by a deep canyon, traversed by an arched bridge reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct.

Cork bark is closely intertwined with the lives of the people in these regions.

"When you go to a little village of 600 people, it doesn't matter whether you're a cobbler or you sell cheese or you run a laundromat or you pump gas," Mr Spencer said.

"All the money that's coming into your village is coming from cork, so everyone is invested.

"There's an intimacy between the people of the cork forest and their trees."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Cork and cheese in Spain'. Print Edition | Subscribe