Before dinner, Carme Palahí and Francesc Pastó gave a talk on two aspects of the local cork industry. Carme is a biologist, specialising in botany. She explained that the cork oak, Quercus suber grows only around the Mediterranean basin and in Portugal, which is the largest producer, with Spain the second largest. She talked about the conditions in which the cork oak thrives. The trees can live for 150 years and can survive fire, with the thick bark acting as a natural barrier. For the first 30 years, the trees are left to develop before the first bark harvest. This and the second harvest are of poor quality and cannot be used for making cork stoppers, so it is 50 years before it can be used for stoppers and it is then harvested every 10 years. Regular harvesting encourages the production of good quality cork.
Francesc Pastó works for Oller, a major cork producer, and he gave a very informative talk about the industry from the way it is harvested using axes, through the whole process to the end product.
The industry has changed significantly over the years. It is known that corks were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to seal large amphorae and the first commercial production of bottles began in 1650. From being a manual process, with artisans using knives to hand-carve stoppers, the industrial revolution came to the area with mechanisation leading to women being employed in the industry. The area around Palafrugell was the centre of the industry in Spain and used to be a very significant employer. The number of employees has declined owing to modernisation, but the demand for cork stoppers has gone up in spite of the increased use of screw- top bottles. Forty years ago, it took a week to produce one million stoppers, but now it takes less than a day.