Put a cork in it

The Gingerbread House of Cork in Tel Aviv is a one-of-a-kind shop

Compared to wood or even the green flavor of the month, bamboo, cork is thinner, easier to install and lighter to transport 'It can be really beautiful and is very sustainable... but often the floors end up looking a bit hippy like the ones from the eighties' egend has it that in the 1600s, a Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Perignon sealed a bottle of fizzy wine with a piece of cork instead of oiled rags. Since then, vintners around the world have made cork their bottle-stopper of choice. "I've never heard of this story," says Ezra Mashal, co-owner of the family cork import business, the Cork House in south Tel Aviv. "What I can tell you is that cork is a rare material with special qualities. It breathes, lasts a lifetime, is flexible and insulates from sound and temperature." Like the material he sells in his store, Mashal is warm, down-to-earth and inviting. The Iraqi native suggests black Turkish coffee prepared in a cork-decorated kitchen and served on a cork tray, and offers a bagful of assorted cork promos for take-away, such as placemats and a cork-themed day planner. Mashal, one can see, runs the Gingerbread House of Cork. It all started after immigrating to Israel. The family started up a cork import business in 1955, producing cork heels for the shoe industry. Once they became known as cork dealers, people started asking them to produce other cork-based products such as wine stoppers, memo boards, floor and wall tiles and engine gaskets. In recent years, the biggest section of business for the two Mashal brothers, Badre and Ezra, has been supplying cork to the ripening Israeli wine industry, especially to some 300 small boutique wineries. The shop of cork curios on the busy street of Rehov Eilat is open to the public and not only to wholesale buyers. There, one can find a range of practical cork products for the home and business. Earlier this week, Ram, a yoga teacher from Tel Aviv, dropped by to order a stack of cork mats for his yoga studio. Potters who sell at the twice-weekly Nahalat Binyamin market buy Mashal's large cork lids to complete hand-fashioned creations. Jerusalemites, "especially haredim," says Ilanit Shani, Mashal's 36 year-old daughter, "come to buy cork tiles to insulate the walls of their homes. It is very good for Jerusalem where it is cold," she adds. Tel Avivians are buying it too, she points out, and are using cork for both home and fashion projects: shoe soles are being carved out of cork blocks bought by students from the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design; people are gluing sheets of it to their doors, closets and kitchen cabinets. Like the shearing of sheep - and unlike conventional forestry practices - cork harvesting is a sustainable process. The bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) is stripped off the tree by a skilled craftsman, by way of a process that can be performed about once every ten years. If stripped regularly, a tree can live an average of 170 to 250 years. And like finding the best cut of meat, cork used in industry is selected by a number of parameters. The most desirable qualities are flexibility and a blemish-free surface. Mashal demonstrates the difference between two slabs of cork propped next to his legs. In one hand he holds what is known as virgin cork - the first cork harvest when the tree is young. Virgin cork can be used as a substrate for growing orchids or granulated and formed into other products. Secondary cork, which he holds in his other hand, is cork culled from a tree when it is substantially older. It is has fewer furrows on its surface and its consistent texture is more conducive for making good bottle stoppers. Cork that is not used as stoppers can be ground and made into other products. In some areas of Portugal and Spain where 70 percent of the world's cork stock is produced, some Internet news sites are reporting a decrease in demand for cork - sad news for the family-owned businesses and environmentalists that view cork as a favored renewable product. Wineries, it is reported, have pressure put on them by supermarkets to cork with the synthetic plastic option in order to avoid bacteria contamination and bottle leakage. Mashal was worried about the new plastic stoppers at first (developed to alleviate a cork shortage when an abundance of wine was produced for the year 2000), but over the last years he has only seen an increase in demand for natural cork. And the fact that those who are considered 'green' designers and builders are picking up on cork as an alternative to harvesting wood suggests that cork is bound to become more popular as time passes. 'Cork is probably one of the 'greenest' flooring materials around. It is completely renewable and harvested every nine years from trees that are the natural habitat of endangered species. Compared to wood or even the green flavor of the month, bamboo, cork is thinner, easier to install and lighter to transport,' wrote Lloyd Alter, architect and environmental writer at TreeHugger.com. In addition, Alter points out, cork is a good noise absorber and insulator - Amundsen's Fram, the boat that took South Pole explorer Roald Amundsen to the Antarctic, was insulated with it. 'Unlike ceramics or other tiles, it is not fired in kilns, so it has a far lower carbon footprint. Also, unlike tile, it is soft and shock absorbent, and easy on the feet. [Cork] is recyclable; it can be ground up and reformed into other cork products.' Petz Scholtus, an eco-designer in Barcelona, is currently remodeling her home with environmentally-friendly products and laying down a cork floor. "I love cork," she told Metro in an e-mail interview. "It can be really beautiful and is very sustainable... but often the floors end up looking a bit hippy like the ones from the eighties," she added, pointing to a Portuguese supplier who like the Cork House, designs tiling to match the modern aesthetic. Although Mashal doesn't claim to be hip to the environmental aspects of cork, from what he knows (he goes to Portugal twice a year) it is produced without heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. He recalls seeing cows and other livestock grazing among the cork forests, which until recently grew almost without any human intervention. Perhaps Israel, a country industrious in agriculture, could become an important supplier of cork in the future. The climate here, especially around Tel Aviv, seems perfect for it: Cork trees require a great deal of sun coupled with a combination of low rainfall and high humidity. Yet, as far as Mashal knows, there is only one cork tree growing in Israel, at the historic Mikveh Israel agricultural school just south of Tel Aviv. He hasn't been yet to see it. "I'm too busy," he shrugs. While working in a family-run business has its downsides, says Mashal's daughter ("There's no one to replace me if I am sick"), it also has some perks. Wine makers come by often to pick up supplies and samples of wine corks. At the same time, they come bearing bottles of wine to taste. Over the years, Shani has amassed a wine collection at home, and finds a good excuse to drink occasionally at work. "When a customer comes to buy corks, we can already be drunk a bit from the wine-tasting by 11 am." Although not every day, she adds shyly, "Sometimes, it happens."