I guess I never thought about where cork comes from before, have you? Well, the short answer is Portugal. Portugal produces about 50% of the cork harvested annually worldwide and the rest comes from Spain and northwest Africa. Cork is bark stripped from the Cork Oak tree which grows in lush dense forests that are home to many endangered species. The trees live about 200 years, begin yielding cork after about 25 years, and can only be stripped every nine years. Yes, cork is a beautiful, natural, biodegradable, recyclable, environmentally friendly, sustainable, low-carbon-footprint thing.
60% of all cork is used as - you guessed it - wine stoppers. But on our visit to Portugal last summer we were amazed by all the cool things that can be made out of cork. Handbags, wallets, and visors are extremely popular tourist souvenirs, and I actually looked at some very fine quality, durable handbags that weren't cheap.
Many little Portuguese shops have displays and pictures of how cork is harvested, offering a little educational side note to an otherwise simple shopping stroll.