It's easy to spot a cork oak tree with its thick and rubbery bark, its knotted branches, its dark green leaves spiked at the edges. In the siliceous soils of the Maures and the Esterel in the Var departement of southern France, the cork oak tree thrives especially on the sunny southern flanks of the mountains.
Cork has long been used by man. In antiquity, cork closed amphorae, lined fishing nets with buoys, enclosed bees in beehives.
Called "lou suvrier" in Provencal language, the cork oak tree once reigned over the region as a golden goose.
In the 19C, cork extraction boomed in the Var region, propelled in part by a parallel boom in the production of glass-bottled wines and Champagne. Cork had all of the required qualities for fine bottle stoppers: elasticity, lightness, impermeability, resistance to rot.
In the 19C, towns in the Maures such as La Garde Freinet bustled as centers of cork extraction.
But the Var, with its exploited land divided into small parcels, struggled to keep up with cork demand. Meanwhile, cork operations expanded in Portugal's expansive forests of cork oaks, in Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Italy. Cork production began to dramatically drop off in the Var after World War II. Since the 1960's, alternative and less expensive bottle closures such as plastic stoppers and screw caps have further challenged the local as well as international cork industry.
Today, few cork oak trees are harvested in the Var. The art of cork harvesting is slowly dissipating. But cork is resilient. Economics or uses could change and cork bounce back to a new life here.