It’s just W.O.Wnderful

Monday, October 19, 2020, 16:34

Someone standing on scales which tell people their weight in cork stoppers

"Why the awful spelling?" you may ask. "And what on earth is that picture about?"

Well, let me tell you. There's a new, multifaceted enterprise in Porto called W.O.W. Though the letters stand for World of Wine, that is only the start of the experiences on offer. There are exhibitions, museums, cafés and restaurants all belonging to the same venue. One is the Cork Museum and, as some of you may remember, I make things from cork fabric: (www.quercki.com  or https://www.instagram.com/querckidesign/ on Instagram.)

To read more about the cork museum, click here.

 

aAmodel of a caravel made from agglomerated cork in the Santa Maria da Feira museum

You may remember that I once mentioned a cork museum in Santa Maria da Feira: http://www.me-n-youinportugal.com/index.php?p=1_5&nid=87 . There they had recreated a caravel and the Torre de Belem, amongst other things, in agglomerated cork. They were just fun things, though there were also a few traditional artifacts associated with the production of cork and its long-time major use, cork stoppers for wine bottles

The W.O.W. museum, however, is totally different and utterly fascinating. If it were in my part of Portugal, the Minho, it would almost certainly not be called a museum but a "Centro de Interpretação e Promoção" – a centre for the interpretation and promotion of cork - since it displays relatively few ancient artifacts but instead educates the visitor in all aspects of this fabulous, versatile and eco-friendly material.

Fun is not limited to the Sta Santa Maria da Feira museum though. Take the picture at the beginning: my husband is standing on a scale and behind a window you can see corks cascading down into a huge pile. It turns out that he weighs the equivalent of 16,596 cork bottle stoppers! (Cork is a light material.) You can find your weight in champagne stoppers too if you like. Think how chic that sounds.

So, what else does this museum tell you? Well for a start you can go back millions of years in time to discover that the quercus suber, the cork oak, flourished long before we were around to think that its bark would be the ideal stopper for the bottle of red wine we drink with dinner. Apparently, the cork oak is there in the fossil history of the Alentejo, where it still grows today.

Less long ago, but still thousands of years, the great civilisations of the past knew about and valued cork: Egyptians made fishing implements, Greeks sealed their amphorae and Romans covered roofs and ceilings with cork. Roman centurions even used cork in their footwear. We think we've just discovered that cork soles are great to walk on but, of course, as the saying goes, there's nothing new under the sun.

Interactive screen with pre-selected questions int he cork museum

What else is good to know? Well as you pass through the museum, a slightly disconcerting disembodied voice invites you to ask questions. Then you realise that a virtual informant is eager to enlighten you on the answers to some preselected questions. These come on a screen with some excellent illustrations. Here are some about harvesting.

Cork trees grow all around the western Mediterranean area, though no country has as many as Portugal, where it is an essential element in the economy. Just look at the concentration of dots, especially in the south central Alentejo region.

A map showing where cork tress grow around the Mediterranean Sea


Important as cork is to the well-being of the thousands of Portuguese people who are engaged in the
growing, harvesting and producing of saleable products, this is not the cork oak's only benefit. Equally important perhaps is its effect on nature. Cork oak groves are home to a wide variety of plants, animals and insects, some of them highly endangered. Take the European lynx. Said to be the world's most endangered feline, it can be found only in Portugal and Spain. Many years ago, I tried to visit a lynx reserve near Castelo Branco, only to be told that none had been recorded there for several years. However, recent conservation efforts are bearing fruit and in 2018 there were said to be as many as 640 in the Iberian Peninsula. Let's hope that they continue to thrive despite climate change.

A historic photo showing villagers all engaged in the cork harvest

Throughout the museum there are screens telling the story of cork. Of special interest to me were the historic photos of community involvement. Clearly harvesting was a village wide effort. There are also some examples of old production equipment such as is this cork stopper machine. Originally people had had to shape rectangular blocks using knives and spatulas. Imagine the skill, the effort and the time involved! Wine producers must have blessed the inventor of the machine that rotated those cork blocks against a blade, thus making a perfect cylinder with such enviable ease.

An antique cork stopper production machine

What was once a cottage industry has grown to be a massive industrial enterprise. If anything were to happen to the cork oak – such as the kind of disease that devastated the elm trees in Britain – the effect on Portugal's GDP would be catastrophic. To give you an idea of the extent of this industry look at the photo below. This vast cork yard is just one of many.

An enormous storage yard filled with cork bark

I have been enthusing about cork throughout our quick tour of the cork museum – though I have not told one tenth of the things you will see when you come. (I say 'when' not 'if' because this is a place you should visit to understand how cork is inextricably bound up with Portuguese life.) 

Now, to urge you on, I should tell you about some things that cork can do. You may not be aware of it, but cork is a vital component of many of the vehicle we drive. It is used in various ways in all kinds of vehicles: nothing is so good for making gaskets for motor car engines as cork but you may also find it in your comfy seats too.

An engine part made from cork

In fact, cork's uses might be even be described as 'out of this world' since it has protected the astronauts who travelled into space in America's shuttles. The heat created by the vehicle's re-entry into our atmosphere would have fried them were not for the insulating properties of Portuguese cork in the nose cones. And, though cork is used in bottle stoppers, as a material it is actually unstoppable. The shuttles may have been grounded but cork is still voyaging out into space and expanding our knowledge of the universe since it is now on its way to Mars, where it will be instrumental in bringing back samples from that planet for us to study.

Cork also helps sporty people have fun on their skateboards and surfboards. You must have seen the scary photos of miniscule surfers on cork-based boards, battling the recording breaking waves in Nazaré! Olympic kayakers praise it in the manufacture of their craft and what about the implement below?

A bat made for playing the relatively new game of padel

 

This is a bat from the relatively new sport of padel. I have friends for whom playing padel is now an essential joy in life.

Are you thinking that I must have reached the end of my list of cork products? Well, think again. What about floors? It doesn't have to be the boring bathroom tile of the 1960s and 70s. Cork can mimic many kinds of materials but it is softer on the foot and warmer than stone, more eco-friendly than vinyl. And walls are not to be left out. What do you think of this curious wall covering?

a wall made from cork

Not to be outdone, furniture makers have come onto the scene too. These chairs may not be to your taste - at least they are not to mine - but you have to admit they are interesting.

Futuristic cork furniture

What about this lounger? It looks pretty comfortable and just think: it won't get hot and sticky like plastic; nor will it chafe like nylon; and as cork is so light you won't need huge muscles to pick it up. This is the Rolls Royce of poolside furniture

A cork poolside lounger

And if you think cork furniture is exotic, how does the idea of cork clothes grab you? In the cork museum you can join some slim, leggy models on the catwalk. All of them are wearing creations made from my preferred medium – cork fabric.

Cork fashion on the catwalk

There are so many uses for cork that it's hard to choose any examples more surprising than those I've given you already, but let me ask you one more question: do you think cork is fundamental to many films you have watched and enjoyed? Of course, you will say, "Yes". If that were not the answer there would be no point in my question. So, let me show you a picture:

Cork used in film explosions

If that explosion were a real one, you would expect people either to die or to be seriously injured. The one in picture, however, was a controlled explosion and the debris, which looks so real, would not put you in hospital because it is light airy cork. When, for example, you see a disaster film with a massive volcanic eruption, followed by huge boulders careering down a road, the fleeing people are not actually in danger of being crushed because you are almost certainly watching chunks of harmless cork, made to look like rock. When, in cops and robbers films, bullets crack into doors and walls sending shards in all directions, you are probably looking at fragments of cork.

Cork is not only the material of the past and the present but far more importantly, it is a material which, being sustainable, eco-friendly, fully recyclable, vegan friendly, heat, water and dirt resistant, will be one of the important materials of all our futures. Have I convinced you that cork is a wonderful?

Oh, and by the way, if you want to buy some of the desirable things you have seen going round the museum, there is, of course, a shop at the end.

The shop in the cork museum


To sum up, there is so much to see and learn in this museum that I want to encourage you to visit it. I have only one serious caveat: the entrance fee. While I realise that the investment involved in setting up this complex of museums and shops has been huge, €15 per person is a great disincentive. If I were not a cork nutter, I would have thought more than twice about my husband and me spending €30 to go in. There wasn't even a reduced rate for decrepit old codgers on a pension like us! Admittedly, the fees reduce a little if you visit more than one attraction from among the Wine Experience, Porto Region across the Ages, the Chocolate Story, the Bridge Collection of drinking vessels and Planet Cork. Two experiences cost €23, three cost €30. Yet if you also have a snack in one of several attractive cafés and restaurants, this can prove a very expensive day out. You must weigh up the high price against a well-planned and laid out, informative and educational attraction. For me it was worth it but for you? Well that is up to you to decide.

Do you have a favourite museum? If you do, please tell us about it. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

 


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