It isn’t often I turn down an invitation for a restaurant meal. This year, Mother’s Day weekend was one of those times.

Hallmark, the florist industry and academia collided when Mother’s Day coincided with Penn State graduation—10,000 celebrating graduates, their parents, and their siblings converged on State College, snarling traffic, swarming sidewalks, swamping take-out delivery orders, and stuffing restaurants. What’s a mother to do?

Usually, it’s not an issue.

Marina and Richard have both chosen Belgium as their home base, so Mother’s Day consists of blown bisous via Skype. But this spring, Richard came back to Pennsylvania for a visit.

So we had a Sunday afternoon conference.

My mom was unusually pessimistic. “Are we going to have to knock on doors to find something to eat?”

“Nonna, when have you ever gone hungry? It’s Mother’s Day, Grandmother’s Day and Great Grandmother’s Day. We want to do something special.” Richard replied.

We scanned the CDTs listing of Bites & Beverages, thinking we could avoid the crowds at a restaurant on the outskirts of town. Heck, Friday night Nonna wanted to go “out and about” so we drove to Altoona for a case of Saucony Creek Belgian-Style Tripel. Extravagant, yes, but closer than driving to the craft brewery in Kutztown. On a lazy Sunday, nothing appealed. All we did was find typos in the restaurant listings—Snow Show, PA for Snow Shoe, PA, and Carnegre Crabcakes at the Carnegie House.

So, we decided to eat at home. Richard had a package of frilly fettuccine squid ink pasta from Fasta and Ravioli Co. that he wanted to try. We figured we’d buy some seafood, but what sauce? Tomato would mask the squid ink and Richard wanted something jazzier than olive oil, garlic and cilantro. He started checking out recipes. Anything with “clam juice” grossed him out. The thought of tartar sauce on pasta did the same for me. What about Lobster Bisque as a sauce? Richard asked. It just might work.

So, we headed to Wegmans in search of the bisque and gifts from the sea.

Mother’s Day Dinner a la Richard

2 lbs. mussels (steamed in 2” salted water for about 3 minutes, until they pop open). Remove from shells

1 lb. scallops, sautéed in olive oil & garlic powder

32 oz. (2 lb.) Wegmans’ Lobster Bisque

12 oz. Squid Ink Pasta, boiled 3-5 minutes

Asiago cheese, grated

Parsley, chopped the Belgian way (leaves stuffed in a coffee mug and snipped with scissors) by Nonna

Add cooked mussels and scallops to heated lobster bisque. Boil pasta until al dente, drain, and toss with olive oil. Place pasta in bowl and ladle seafood sauce on top. Sprinkle with cheese and parsley, and serve with a nice glass of La Marca Prosecco. Laurie Lynch

Luffa Discs

Luffa Discs

Keeps on Giving: Leftovers are often my favorite meals, and this dinner was no exception. We had enough sauce for Monday’s meal. We added lightly steamed asparagus to the re-heated sauce and poured it over rice. Mmmmm.

Special Delivery: Last September I wrote about a pizza party at McBurney Manor in McAlevy’s Fort. Nancy Yoder has expanded her bake house offerings and now delivers artisan breads and pre-baked pizza crusts to several locations in Central PA including a natural food market on the way home from my office.

Well, the other week we bought Nancy’s pizza crusts and went wild in the kitchen. On the first, we loaded up with Ricotta and Romano cheeses, asparagus shavings, halved cherry tomatoes, and chunks of sardines. We topped the second with tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, pepperoni, and Mozzarella. I’m still trying to figure out which was my favorite.

Gardening Road Trip: The Centre County Master Gardeners’ 2016 Garden Fair and Plant Sale will be Saturday, May 21, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Rock Springs, Penn State’s Ag Progress Days site, southwest of State College. Author George Weigel is the celebrity speaker at 10 a.m. with Smart Gardening: When To Do What To Keep Your Yard Looking Great (or at Least Passable) and at 12:30 p.m., Amazing Space: Great Home Gardens and What Makes Them Special.   At 11 a.m., Carla Hass, senior lecturer with the PSU Eberly College of Science and Master Gardener, will present Good Bugs/Bad Bugs.

We will have more than 5,000 plants for sale, a Silent Auction and Garage Sale, and more than 25 garden and food vendors. Yours truly will be selling luffas and seedlings from our 2015 High Tunnel project to benefit the Ag Progress Days Demonstration Garden. Hope to see you there.


Language barriers melt away when it comes to good food.



I did my research. Before arriving in Southern Portugal I knew Cataplana on the menu equates to a luscious stew. Also, thanks to our Brazilian Rotary Exchange student from years ago, Celso Santin, I knew another important Portuguese word: Obrigada, (thank you). If you are a male, you say Obrigado.

A cataplana is a copper steamer shaped like a clamshell with a hinge on the back and clamps on either side. A bunch of tasty ingredients, such as garlic, onion, olive oil, wine, and vegetables are steamed and simmered in the cataplana on a stove. If you are making the traditional Algarve specialty, you would add ameijoas (clams) and pork. But that’s just the beginning. Cataplana can be made with bacalhau (salted cod), camaraoes (prawns), mexilhoes (mussels), espadarte (swordfish), any fresh catch of the day.

Some restaurants offer simpler fare. For shellfish pulled from the sea that morning, lots and lots of garlic and cilantro were the two magic ingredients in many of the dishes we tried. Spending much of my life in land-locked Pennsylvania, I had a lot of seafood “firsts” in Portugal. Langueirao (razor clams) were on the menu and I just had to try them. On childhood beach walks in Avalon, NJ, razor clam shells were so ordinary that we didn’t collect them. In Portugal I was chewing on razor clam meat in a broth of garlic and cilantro, and loving it.


Fresh lemons everywhere

I had never eaten polvo (octopus) before. In Portugal, octopus salad, with garlic, green peppers, and light vinaigrette, was served before several meals. Mmmm.

Bacalhau and borrego (lamb) are always on the menus (if Portuguese cook lamb a dozen ways, they prepare cod a hundred ways), as were grilled sardinhas. Grilled sardines are always on the menu but only in restaurant kitchens between May and October. One patient waiter explained that fresh sardinhas are not “fat enough” until May, at which time they are grilled over coals and eaten like corn on the cob (the spine being the cob). We settled for tinned sardinhas—in oil, tomato sauce or piri-piri (olive oil with hot red chili peppers), or as a pate—as a staple for our picnics along with bread and cheese, all from our neighborhood Intermarche, Pingo Doce, or Supermarcados. And, yes, I pull out the spines.


Only in Portugal, sardine postcard

One menu entry that always gave me trouble was Cacao. My eyes were always drawn to it because I saw chocolate…but it was actually translated as “dogfish.” I had heard of Delaware’s Dogfish Head craft-brewed beers, but never the dogfish fish. And I still haven’t tasted it, unless it was one of the mystery fish in the half-dozen cataplana meals I devoured.

State College is no hotbed of seafood, so I doubt I’ll be trying many Portuguese recipes, but I sure brought back some cooking methods.

Cilantro and garlic is going to be my go-to summer duo. I’ve already tried a new way of preparing batatas doces (sweet potatoes). Sauté, ever so lightly, chunks of garlic in olive oil while the potatoes bake to an incredibly soft stage. Pour the sweet garlic and olive oil over the sweet potatoes. Heaven. (Before Portugal, I never thought of putting garlic on sweet potatoes.)

One night in Faro, when I needed a break from hearty seafood stew, I tried a salad of black-eyed peas with tuna, simply prepared with cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice. It is so refreshing and such an easy meal to re-create.

In honor of above-mentioned Celso, we selected a restaurant in Vila Nova de Milfontes called Tasco do Celso (Celso’s Tavern). The tavern had dark paneling, a slowly burning fire in the fireplace, a delicious dinner, dessert, and coffee. When we thought we had maxed out, our waiter brought a bottle of Licor de Bolota and poured each of us a cordial. Another first—acorn liqueur—and on the house. Obrigada times two.


Koen & Marina

Drinking in Portugal is incredibly inexpensive. On our picnic supply forays to the local supermarkets we always stocked up on a few bottles of vinho or porto. We spent about 2 Euros per bottle of vinho, a little more for porto, and never had a bad bottle or a hangover. The Romans gave the Alentejo region the tradition of fermenting and storing wine in clay jars called talhas. March was off-season for touring vineyards. We saw miles of wire trellis with stubs of pruned-back grapevines, piles of prunings ready to be burned, and a few decorative talhas marking gated entries.

As for liqueurs…I love the Portuguese spelling of the word—l-i-c-o-r—the way it should be spelled, not all of those damned Qs and Us and Es. When one shopkeeper gave us a taste of Licor de Poejo, he explained it was an herb that grew wild in the fields of the Algarve. Marina and I both got a bottle; mine made it onto Ryanair—hers is somewhere in the postal system between Portugal and Belgium…good luck! When we got home, we found out Licor de Poejo is made of organic pennyroyal (mint) with fig brandy and sugar.

In Lisbon, they have bars where they only sell one licorGinjinha or simply Ginga. Made of wild, sweet cherries, Ginga is offered in plastic shot glasses, so you can sip as you walk along the Tagus River at sunset.

We went to Cabo de Sao Vicente, the most southwestern point of Portugal, a place the Romans considered the edge of their world, a mystical place where the sun sank, sizzling into the endless ocean. At a gift shop with shelves of licor, I decided to look for some acorn liqueur, but I didn’t know how to say “acorn” in Portuguese. I began to mime with loud, slow English. “Oak tree,” “Very big,” I continued, spreading my arms out, with “nuts with a cap,” I said, patting my head with my hand. The shop clerk got a pad of paper and a pencil. She sketched an acorn. “Yes!” She turned around and took a flask of Licor de Bolota off the shelf. Sold.

Licor de Bolota tastes like hazelnut liqueur. It is made from the fruit of the Holm or Stone Oak, Quercus rotundifolia. The acorns are also said to be a favorite of foraging pigs, imparting a delicious flavor to Portuguese pork.

A few words on coffee: Guidebooks say the Portuguese word for espresso is bica, but I prefer regular coffee with cream, so I winged it. I’d say café or latte or cappuccino and get the point across. One old curmudgeon looked at me and said, “black or white?” That distilled things pretty quickly. Regardless, coffee in Portugal is always served with packets of sugar —they must like it sweet—and occasionally, coffee was served with a plastic wrapped Pau de Canela/Canela en Rama/Baton de Cannelle/Cinnamon Stick.


Pasteis de Nata for breakfast

My favorite accompaniment to coffee, by far, is a custard tart, Pasteis de Nata, from Pasteis de Belem.

Last word on the language: I quickly picked up on bom dia, good day, and said it to everyone. Words like mercado (market), centro (center of town), parque (that’s easy), and pastelaria (bakery where they sell pasteis de nata) were quickly absorbed into my vocabulary. The only time my lack of Portuguese language skills really had me concerned was the morning we were leaving Campinho.

A white van cruised through town, its loudspeaker blaring what seemed like an important message. I don’t know if it was warning of an alien invasion, telling us not to vote for Donald Trump, announcing an upcoming bullfight, or simply telling us to put recyclables on the curb. We loaded up Tinto and skedaddled. Laurie Lynch

May is for Sardines: When I got back home, I scanned for Portuguese recipes written in English. I found the website: http://saomarcosdaserra.com The title of this recipe made me smile. Of course I won’t be planting beans until June, but by mid-summer Peixinhos da Horta should tide me over until my next visit to Portugal.

Peixinhos da Horta

Little Fishes from the Vegetable Garden

1 kg green beans

2 cloves garlic

6 eggs

70 g onions

200 g flour

Salt and olive oil to taste

Cut beans into thin strips, about 15 cm long. Boil in salted water until half-cooked. Make batter with flour, a little water, eggs (beaten well), chopped onion and chopped garlic. When batter ingredients have been thoroughly mixed together, add beans and stir until completely covered with batter.

Fry beans in olive oil. Serve with a fresh lettuce and tomato salad.


You can’t help but look down when you walk in Portugal—it is like strolling on the walls of a museum. Sidewalks are not merely utilitarian; they are decorative works of art. As for the plazas and squares, we’re talking mosaic masterpieces.

Faro Fleur-de-Lys

Faro Fleur-de-Lys

Calcada Portuguesa is what they call it, Portuguese Pavement. The cultural art form enlivens block after block in the capital city of Lisbon and transforms movement in tiny villages from mundane trips to the banco or farmacia into scenic, hand-cobbled passages.

Calcada Portuguesa is a walk made with white/light gray stones only. Craftsmen use 5-inch cubes of limestone pavers, not tiles. The more decorative walkways add contrasting black basalt cubes and intricate patterns, and are called Calcada Portuguesa Artistica.


Evora Plaza

The story goes that Portugal’s first decorative stonework of came about as a result of an order given to prison inmates at Lisbon’s Castelo de Sao Jorge in 1842. The general wanted to keep the men busy, so he had them pave the courtyard in a zigzag pattern. Soon after that, Lisbon’s Rossio Square was paved in a wave pattern. Within 50 years, Lisbon’s town council made Calcada Portuguesa mandatory. From there, the cobblestone art spread throughout country and even to Portuguese colonies, from Rio de Janeiro to Macau.

The cobble design is practical—rainwater percolates into the ground rather than flooding city drains. It also allows for thermal expansion, and is easy to repair and excavate to access buried services. But Calcada Portuguesa has its downside.   As the surface of the stones are worn down by pedestrians, they get slippery. Walking around Lisbon, especially on hills, I’d hold Marina’s arm and say, “I’d hate to walk on this when it is icy” and catch my lack of logic…Lisbon doesn’t have icy winters. Wearing high heels would be treacherous; I’m thinking Yaktrax might be a good strategy for a long-term stay.

Shopping Promanade Faro

Shopping Promenade

Visually, the Calcada Portuguesa is captivating. As the daughter of a building contractor, I thought to myself, “I’d love to know how they make these sidewalks.”

In Odemira, I bumped into a wish come true.

We were looking for a Wi-Fi spot to make hotel arrangements and were pointed in the direction of the Biblioteca Municipal (town library) set high on a hill. At the base of the hill, there were men working on a walkway. They used pointed hammers to chip corners of the cobbles as they laid them by hand on a compacted bed of sand. Each stone was hammered into place. Another fellow would use a stiff push broom to spread damp sand over the top, filling in any spaces. I felt honored to photograph the calceteiros hard at work. Laurie Lynch


Hammering into place.

Adding Sand

Finishing touch.










The Portuguese Pavement that became a mural, Alfama, Lisbon.





Somewhere along our travels we met a fellow who told us the Portuguese were hoping to make Portugal “The Florida of Europe.”

I responded with a weak, nervous laugh.

From the tiny slice of the country I saw, who wouldn’t want to live in the sunshine and raw, natural beauty of Portugal? But it’s the old Catch 22 … “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Sure, the Portuguese economy could use a boost, but with Florida as a reference, all I can envision is concrete condo castles and lots and lots of traffic. No storks, no cork forests, no empty beaches. No dirt roads leading to seaside cliffs or ancient monoliths.

Luckily, that doomsday projection was not reality in March 2016.

A large “i” sign in any town was a gold mine for us. It is the universal symbol of the Posto de Turismo (tourism bureau), filled with brochures and maps in several languages, and helpful clerks who speak English. In Odemira we picked up a wonderful map of the southwestern coastal region, from Malhao in the north to Odeceixe in the south. The map shows locations of Moinhos de Vento (windmills—used for grinding flour used in wonderful Portuguese breads), Ninhos de Cegonhas (stork nests), Miradouros (good views), Postos de Combustivel (gas stations), Portos de Pesca (fishing ports). Also listed are popular Praias (beaches) and whether they are appropriate for surfing, bodyboarding, windsurfing, or romping in the nude.

Portugal has almost 600 miles of shoreline. We focused on a small portion in the southwest, turned the corner at Sagres, headed east to Lagos, and simply ran out of time. Most of the beaches we encountered came with the drama of steep, rocky cliffs; southern beaches are wide and sandy and lined with golf courses and resorts. Here is a quick view of our beach exploration—from the black schist (sheets of black rock similar to slate) beaches of Almograve to the shifting sands where the River Seixe swirls into the Atlantic at Odeceixe, to the golden cliffs of Praia Dona Ana on Portugal’s southern coast. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea.” e.e. Cummings

Praia do Almograve

Praia do Almograve




Praia de Zambjeira do Mar

Praia de Zambjeira do Mar


Praia de Odeceixe Mar

Praia de Odeceixe Mar


Praia da Arrifana

Praia da Arrifana

Praia da Bordeira

Praia da Bordeira

Praia Dona Ana Lagos

Praia Dona Ana, Lagos


Blue TrimThe villages of southern Portugal are mazes of narrow streets lined with white plaster homes topped with undulating clay tile roofs. Doorways and windows have borders of either lapis blue or sunshine yellow.

It is said that the blue is a superstitious holdover from the Moors who believe the color keeps the devil away. Others say the blue surrounds keep flies at bay. The yellow is said to be the “color of old royalty”. It is also painted around doors and windows to prevent evil spirits from entering.Yellow trim

I have my own theory: The blue color captures the sea and sky; the yellow reflects the landscape of yellow flowers.

As we traveled through the rural reaches of the Western Iberian Peninsula, fields of velvety spires of yellow blossoms swayed in the breeze, like land-locked seas of shimmering gold, clamoring for attention.

I’m not the only one who noticed the fields. An Odemira Tourist Route brochure features a photo of three young people, scarved in the European tradition, sitting in a dell of green with the yellow torch-like blossoms.Yellow field

Another day, on my way to the Agencia dos Correios in Almograve, I picked a golden blossom. This was my second visit to mail postcards to the U.S. Despite the fact that the first time I handed the clerk a 50 Euro note for postage, depleting her change, she was friendly when I arrived the second time. I used English, holding up the flower and saying “beautiful” while smiling. She, only speaking Portuguese, returned a smile, recognizing the plant immediately. She pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote—Tremoceiro. In her sparse English she explained the plant is grown for its beans, to feed animals. I left the Agencia dos Correios, postcards mailed, mystery solved.Lupine

Tremoceiro is the Portuguese word for what we in the U.S. call lupine. A favorite book from my children’s youth, Miss Rumphius, tells of the “Lupine Lady” who scatters seeds of blue, purple, and rose lupines throughout Maine to make the world more beautiful. Thanks to that book, I grew lupines in our garden at Fleur-de-Lys, but never with much success. As it turns out, the yellow lupin (in Europe they lose the “e”), Lupinus luteus, is native to Portugal.

When I wasn’t gazing at fields of gold I was inspecting (and photographing) the jewels of Portugal’s coastal dunes. I was unfamiliar with most of them and had to do a little research when I came home to identify the beauties. Some are native to Portugal; others speak to the country’s seafaring heritage, finding treasure in distant lands. Laurie Lynch



Cistus ladanifer   Native to Portugal, Esteva is also called crimson spot rockrose. This evergreen shrub is drought resistant and has sticky green leaves.






Agave americana Brought back from Mexico and South America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the mid-16th century.







Acacia saligna   Shrubs with sprays of yellow, globe-like flowers rise out of the dunes along Portugal’s west coast. It is known as Golden Wreath Wattle in its native Australia.




Pig Face?

Carpobrotus edulis   I love the succulent foliage of this plant, native to South Africa. It goes by the name of pig face or ice plant, as well as Hottentot or sour fig, because of its edible fruit. The flowers, which start blooming in April, look like large, colorful daisies.

P.S. These last two beauties aren’t plants of the dunes, but they will always whisper “Portugal” to me. The first, Bougainvillea, was introduced to me by my father. He fell in love with the thorny vine when he and my mom went to Portugal and Madeira in 1992. The bracts look like paper flowers of magenta, red, purple, orange, yellow or white.










From Field to Market: One day while in Portugal, Marina and Koen decided to hike along the coast. I was given the keys to the rental car, with Marina admonishing me not to drive and take photos at the same time. I passed a field that looked like it was filled with colorful globe artichokes…but I didn’t get the shot. Several days later, while wandering through the Gent flower market, I found the blossoms. “Protea,” the vendor said, another mystery solved.Protea









Cabo Sardao

The storks of Cabo Sardao

We missed the flamingoes. Apparently their migratory stop in southern Portugal took place before we arrived. No bother. I met the European white stork, Ciconia ciconia.

As we drove around Portugal, I was like a little kid in a candy shop: “There’s a stork nest. There’s another. Oh look, there are storks all over that tree over there.”

For most of my life I’ve seen the cartoon stork character carrying an infant in a sling. I was never impressed. But in real life, these birds capture my attention and affection.

European white storks are long-necked wading birds standing on stilt-like red legs with straight pointed red bills. They have white feathers from head to tail, with the exception of their jet-black wing feathers. They stand a good 3-feet tall and their wingspan is easily triple that. Unlike many birds, males and females look alike, except that males are generally larger. Legs and beaks turn red as the birds mature. European white storks have no vocal chords, so they communicate by clacking their beaks.

Stork Condo

Stork Condo

As impressive as the storks are, the architecture of their nests is just as fascinating. You can’t miss them. They are bulky, made of branches and twigs, measuring six feet across and up to 9 feet deep. I’ve read that the nests are lined with grass, sod, rags, and paper. They are on rooftops and seaside cliffs, chimneys and light poles, trees and towers, even centuries-old church steeples.

Storks are such friendly birds, settling in cities and countryside alike, totally unperturbed by wingless humans aiming cameras at them. Some nests have been used continuously for hundreds of years—European storks have been building nests on manmade structures since the Middle Ages. The knights of that era decorated their shields, banners and coats of arms with figures of storks. Today, the stork continues to be revered. It is against Portuguese law to disturb or demolish a stork nest.

(In the last 50 years pollution, pesticides, and wetland drainage have led to a decline in the stork population in Western Europe. Storks no longer breed in Sweden, Switzerland, western France or Belgium. In The Netherlands, breeding pairs declined from 500 in 1910 to 5 in 1985; in Denmark there were 4,000 breeding pairs in 1890; 100 years later, only a dozen.)

Stork couples use the same nest each year, always adding to it. Interestingly enough, while a pair shares a nest during breeding season, the two don’t migrate or overwinter together. These long-legged wading birds thrive on small mammals, frogs, fish, lizards, snakes, mollusks, and insects. They prefer open habitats, such as wet pastures, flooded meadows and marshes, but coastal towns also provide good hunting grounds. Portuguese farmers see storks as a way to eliminate the need for expensive pesticides. Farmers entice storks to their property by placing old wagon wheels on sawed off willows, encouraging the birds to use the wheels as bases for their nests.

During migration storks soar on thermal air currents and are reluctant to fly across large bodies of water to reach their wintering spots in tropic Africa. Therefore, the Western birds cross over the Straits of Gibraltar while the Eastern birds cross the Bosporus and go through the Middle East. In October, when the storks of Portugal’s Algarve migrate to Africa for the winter months, I’ve read that the skies above Sagres and Cabo de Sao Vicente, the extreme southwest corner of continental Europe, are filled with thousands of storks, gliding on the thermals.

Stork Sculpturepg


Storks breed in various countries, from Tunisia and Morocco to southern Portugal, to Croatia and Slovenia, to Greece, Turkey, and Russia. They typically lay 3 to 5 eggs in March or April, and incubation is 33 to 34 days. Return migration from Africa to their breeding grounds occurs nine months after the previous summer solstice, June 21. The summer solstice was a pagan holiday of marriage and fertility, when many human babies were conceived. The increased birth rate in March coincided with the storks’ return from Africa, giving rise to the legend of storks delivering babies.

For the most part, the folktales and stories about storks I’ve read since returning home link storks and babies, or storks and good luck. Storks are included in Greek and Norse mythology as well as and Chinese and Israeli legends.

Then, there are the other stories. Hans Christian Andersen wrote the fable The Storks in 19th century Denmark, where storks take revenge on nasty children. A Polish folktale follows similar lines, saying that God gave the stork white feathers but the Devil gave it black wings, symbolizing that the bird is both good and evil. In England, the stork represents adultery. In Germany, legend has it that when a handicapped baby was born, it had been “dropped” by a stork to punish the parents for past sins.

Faro Cross

Faro Cross

I much prefer the Dutch proverb, where storks are admired for eating frogs. In Dutch, the stork is called “ooijevaar,” which means treasure-bringer. Storks nesting on the roof mean a baby will soon be born in the house, a treasure indeed. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” –Martin Buber

Cliff Perch

Cliff Perch



When I was a youngster, I had my reckless moments. Like the time I was driving a two-wheeled cart pulled by my Shetland pony Firecracker. My hands were on the reins, I thought I was in control, but somehow Firecracker and the cart with me in it plowed over a newly planted maple tree in my parents’ backyard.up close

I caught hell that day, but in the long run, the experience taught me a lesson in resilience. Firecracker is in pony heaven, but that darn tree stands broad and erect outside my bedroom window.

During a visit to Provence, sycamores lining country roads etched a peaceful landscape in my mind. Imagine, coming back and finding 440 Hottenstein Road, soon-to-become Fleur-de-Lys Farm, with a giant sycamore standing in the meadow across from the barn.

So planning a trip to Portugal in search of cork oak trees is strange, but hardly out of character, and not at all difficult. If you visit the interior of southern Portugal, in the Algarve and Alentejo regions, it would be hard NOT to see miles and miles of cork trees. Groves of cork trees line the roads. They call attention to themselves, with stripped trunks that look like bare arms sticking out of wooly, lichen sweaters covering the upper branches of the canopy. Each bears a white number painted on the trunk—0 through 9.Lichen on Bark

Portugal’s Montados de Sobro–cork oak forests—are a mix of agriculture, forestry, pasture, culture, and history. Besides the many uses of the cork itself, the cork oak provides acorns for feed, its canopy shades grazing cattle, sheep or goats in the searing summer heat, and its leaf litter creates humus and replenishes the soil, preserving groundwater. Montados are a haven for wildlife, including 42 bird species. In a single square meter of one cork forest more than 60 plant species were recorded. Remote areas of the protected forests are home to the rare Iberian lynx. The first environmental laws in the world were passed in Portugal in the early 13th century to protect the cork oak forests.

A cork forest we stopped at outside Evora surrounded Cromeleque dos Almendres, the largest megalithic monument on the Iberian Peninsula, pre-dating Stonehenge by 2,000 years. Tinta picked up a thick coating of dust as Koen navigated a rutty rural road, but it was well worth it. Where else can you picnic, hug cork trees, hug towering granite stones erected in twin circles between 5,000 and 4,000 B.C., take all the photos you want—and see no more than a half dozen other visitors?

The bark from Quercus suber, the cork oak, has been harvested commercially in Portugal for the past 300 years. The tiradors, cork strippers, are the highest paid agricultural field workers in the world, earning 80-120 Euros/day plus benefits. They work in pairs, one up in the tree; the other, on the ground. With sharp, short-handled axes and in unison they delicately chop into the thick, spongy bark and together carve out door-sized rectangular slabs, almost like peeling an orange. The cork bark is dried for a couple months and then boiled in water to kill insects and bacteria, and to improve its flexibility.Cork tree

When the cork is stripped correctly, the bark grows back and can be harvested in a decade. The cork oak is the only tree that can regenerate its bark. Cork peeling season starts in May with the new moon, and continues into summer. This year, each tree will be marked with white paint with a 6 for 2016 and most likely won’t be harvested again until 2026.

Newly planted cork oaks grow for at least 25 years before the first harvest. The first stripping is used for flooring and the second, a better grade, is used for other products—shoes, belts, wallets, cell phone holders—and the third and subsequent harvests are used for wine bottle stoppers. Each tree can be harvested for 200 years.

The structure of cork is similar to honeycomb—the cells work as sound and heat insulators, and absorb pressure and shock. Cork is light, impermeable to gas and liquid, elastic and compressible, fireproof, resistant to abrasion, and completely natural, renewable, and recyclable. What other material combines all of those characteristics?

In the 17th century, Dom Perignon decided the bark of the cork oak was perfect to seal his champagne and cork wine bottle stoppers took their place in history. Today, Portugal produces more than half of the cork in the world, and Portuguese cork is used in all the world’s greatest wines. However, the global financial crisis as well as the increased use of screw caps and plastic as wine stoppers, has hurt the cork industry. My environmental pledge for the future will be to drink more wine-and only buy bottles of wine topped with Portuguese corks. Laurie LynchEvora- Megaliths&Cork

“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” Diane Ackerman