Ever wonder where the 'corks' in wine bottles come from . . . how they're made? And, there has been a great proliferation in items made from cork over the last several years.
Laura Morelli of Italy Magazine tells us the stripping of cork oaks (Quercus suber) is nothing new. In fact, we know that the inhabitants of pre-Roman Italy were already using cork to cap bottles of wine and oil, but they also used the material to make surprising objects. Pliny the Elder, the esteemed Roman naturalist, wrote in his Natural History that cork oaks were used “chiefly for ships’ anchor drag ropes and fishermen’s drag-nets, for the bungs of casks, and also to make soles for women’s winter shoes.”
Just as in centuries past, the processing of cork still begins with stripping bark from the oak, a process that does not harm the tree itself. The bark is seasoned in vast outdoor vats for up to two years. Then the cork is boiled and disinfected, dried, cut, and packaged.
Although workers on Sardinia were well experienced with harvesting the bark of cork oaks and working the material for a variety of uses, it wasn’t until relatively recent times that they began exploiting the island’s natural resource on a wide scale. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sardinian entrepreneurs began to cultivate crops of cork oaks more systematically. They began to produce wine stoppers on a large scale, using their own local raw materials as well as bark imported from Corsica and mainland Tuscany.
Today, cork is considered one of Sardinia’s most characteristic natural resources and manufactured products. The town Calangianus, on the north end of Sardinia, is the island’s major cork production area. Hundreds of cork enterprises (sugherifici), large and small, are concentrated around this town of just four thousand inhabitants. The cork industry is divided into two main sectors, industrial and artisanal.
Most of the industrial-scale cork factories on Sardinia are focused on the production of wine and champagne corks, or 'tappi', churned out in breathtaking numbers. A single sugherificio can produce tens of thousands of tappi per day, many destined for the great wine producers of Tuscany and Piemonte. Sardinia has earned a worldwide reputation in the production of wine corks, because of the high quality of both the material and the long experience of Sardinian cork makers. Winemakers from Tuscany to California to South Africa—and most recently, China—import Sardinian wine corks in vast numbers.
Giovanni Pasella, a fourth-generation wine cork artisan, tells us, “Today, most of the production of tappi is consolidated in a few companies of enormous size. As a result, some of our smaller companies have decided to focus on specific, high-value steps of the processing. Others have pursued the production of “natural” corks aimed at the highest end of the market —intended for fine wines and special aging.”
In the 1990s, there was a move among winemakers away from natural wine corks and toward plastic, but cork is coming back into vogue. “Cork is an exceptionally pliable material,” says Pasella. “European winemakers are returning to natural cork after a ‘parenthesis’ of the plastic cap.” In addition, the larger cork factories are looking for new opportunities for the use of cork, and Sardinian entrepreneurs are exploring the use of cork in surprising ways—the production of shoes, of apparel, even eco-friendly building materials like wallpaper.
Pasella says that he believes Sardinia’s cork producers must continue to think beyond the wine bottle with their products and processes if they are to adapt to changing global markets. “We face many challenges, but those of us in the cork industry around Calangianus have always been good at collaborating to overcome obstacles. That takes determination—and humility.”
Davide Sessa says working from his small leather and cork studio outside of Cagliari, “My challenge is to make objects that no one has ever imagined could be made with cork.” Sessa’s workshop, filled with jackets, umbrellas, hats, shoes, and other items—all crafted from the bark of the island’s cork trees—stretch the imagination of what could be made from sughero, one of Sardinia’s most versatile raw materials.
Although tourism on Sardinia is on a much smaller scale than mainland Italy, it remains one of the most important sectors of the island’s economy. And, Pasella says, a growing number of those visitors are interested in their products, “We recognize that outside visitors to the island are an important driving force for economic growth,” says Pasella. “More and more people want to learn about cork processing. For us, it indicates how important it is to preserve our know-how and to share it with the growing numbers of visitors who come to Sardinia.”
Davide Sessa says that it’s not only a growing number of visitors to the island but also the creative impulse itself, that he believes will keep the working of cork alive for the next generation, whether in the making of wine corks or objects yet unknown. “What motivates me to create is often the desire to materialize something I’ve seen in a dream or vision. I don’t think about reselling a new creation. I make it for the pure joy of seeing something new born from my own hands. That’s the secret.”
A lot of the cork wares sold throughout the retail shops of Sardinia are aimed for the tourist trade, stamped with scenes of Sardinia or silly sayings in Italian. Make the trek to Calangianus, or seek out the island’s individual cork artisans, to ensure that you buy a high-quality, handmade item directly from the source. Handmade cork items are relatively affordable, easily portable, and make great gifts to bring home in your suitcase.
L‘ Italio-Americano, the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 reminds us when growing up your Nonni (grandparents) curing your ailments with peculiar medical remedies is as natural as getting double portions on your dinner plate. We all got warm milk, honey and a drop of whiskey when we had a bad cough, and eating eggs or drinking milk was certainly forbidden if we were taking antibiotics. My Nonna, as many others from the Liguria area, also swore by 'segna la tosse con l'olio d'oliva’- she would make crosses on my chest after dipping her finger in olive oil warmed in a half of a walnut shell for a cough, or putting a pungent smelling herb (still don’t know what it was) under our pillows when we had a cold. Every time I’d roll over I’d get this awful smell of something and thought – my God, what is that, and then I would remember my Nonna had put it there. But, you know what, my colds didn’t last very long!? If some of these concoctions and practices are certainly more folklore than medicine, some others have solid roots in ancient medical practices and are worth knowing.
In any case, they all are part of that immense, age old traditional knowledge that makes so much of our heritage and marks our identity of Italians so profoundly. And you know what? Some of them, it seems, truly work. Let’s take a closer look at five of the most common throughout the peninsula.
"sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which
it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste
1. Sage leaves to clean your teeth
Out in the garden was usually a sage bush, Italians often grab a couple of leaves and start brushing their teeth; “They’ll keep your teeth white,” we're often told. And indeed, there is science behind this old remedy so dear to Nonna's: sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste, at least here in Italy. And it certainly does freshen your breath!
2. Sliced potatoes to soothe a sore head
I admit this sounds very strange, but it is a hit among Italian Nonne. Complain about a headache and they’ll come to the rescue with a few slices of freshly peeled, raw potatoes and a neck scarf, they’ll get you to lie down, place the slices on your temples and forehead and secure them in place with the scarf. Their prompt medical intervention usually ends with the warning not to move for at least 30 minutes. And well, as strange as this remedy may sound, it sometimes work. Potatoes are rich in starch, which is known to work as an anti-inflammatory. Moreover, potato juices are alkaline and improve circulation, thus helping blood flow to the brain. So, in this case, too, science supports our Nonna's’ advice.
3. Olive oil to cool down sunburn
Many Italian grandmas do swear by extra virgin olive oil not only in the kitchen, but also when it comes to sunburn. Olive oil softens, hydrates and it’s all natural, so it does not damage your skin: the best thing to do is to dilute extra virgin olive oil with an equal part of water and then apply the concoction on burnt skin. Once again, our Nonne are not mistaken: the anti-inflammatory and even painkilling properties of olive oil have been known to the people of the Mediterranean for millennia: you really only need to take a look at Greek and Roman medical treatises to understand how important an ingredient it was in ancient medicine. And so, it transpires, grandmas know well even the Greeks, the Romans and their secrets to make us feel better.
4. Onions to get rid of earache
Nonne would take half an onion, warm it up in a bit of hot water, then have you lie down and place it on the sore ear. Needless to say, she wasn’t the only Nonna to know about the medical properties of onions, which contain a natural antibiotic called allicin, the active ingredient helping ease out the pain.
Of course, the onion’s warm vapors, released thanks to its immersion in hot water, also work as a mild painkiller, which may not be as strong as a real medicine, but certainly helps: this is why Italian grandmas of the past often liked to put flannel to heat up on the stove and then placed it tight on their grandchildren’s sore ears. And the relief, believe me, was indeed immediate! Other times Nonna would use the above olive oil, warm if and soak somme cotton in it and place it in our ears for awhile - again, the anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties.
5. Clover to kill the pain of a toothache
I think there isn’t a pain quite as awful as that of a bad toothache, especially when you’re a child. The problem is that antibiotics often take a couple of days to get rid of the pain, so the agony lasts, especially when prescribed painkillers cannot be taken more than a couple of times a day, but their effect lasts only a handful of hours. Nonne of Italy swear by a couple of natural remedies, including that of imbuing a cotton ball in brandy and place it on the sore tooth although, now that I think of it, that’s not that “natural” of a remedy!?
But using cloves certainly is. As grandmas teach us, placing cloves on the aching tooth eases the pain almost immediately. This is because cloves have known anesthetic properties thanks to a substance, eugenol, they contain in abundance. If walking around with a handful of cloves in your mouth seems odd, then you can let them soak in hot water with a spoon of coarse sea salt and use the mixture as a mouthwash.
Looking at these remedies, and at all the others they like to use, it really seems Nonne truly know best, even when it comes to health. Though I think what made us feel better was the most important and amazing ingredient of all, the beautiful, heart warming and never ending love of Nonna.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.