Early in my journalism career, to help pay the rent, I worked front of house in a bistro owned by a French chef who was eager for us to upsell customers on the wine list. To do that, we had to know how to open an expensive bottle of wine properly: ALWAYS present the label. NEVER put the bottle on the table while opening it. DO put the cork on the table for examination. DON’T leave the foil wrapper.

It was also just about the time, the early 1990s, when wine companies began switching from traditional cork stoppers to plastic ones and screw caps. While some argued the move was a quality consideration, in hindsight, it was more a measure to cut packaging costs. Cork is expensive because it’s harvested sustainably by skilled farmers, mostly in southern Portugal and Spain. It comes from the bark of the cork oak trees (Quercus suber), which can live up to 300 years. Farmers regularly plant new cork oaks, but no cork can be harvested until the trees are 25 years old. Another 10 years must pass before the bark can be harvested again.

When you’re done with your bottle of wine, keep this farming tradition in mind, remembering that wine corks are too good to be treated like trash (although if you are going to, at least compost them. They are biodegradable). They float, they are durable, they can be fashioned into DIY corkboards, board games, air plant or succulent vases, dinner party place-card holders, pin cushions, table trivets, drink coasters and 1000 other things, directions for which are freely available online.

But what if you you drink a lot of wine but haven’t got a Martha Stewart bone in your body. Approximately 100 corks combine to weigh a pound, says Patrick Spencer, executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance. This Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit works to preserve the cork forests and the biodiversity they shelter on the Iberian Peninsula by striving to create a vibrant cork recycling stream and recycled cork market in the United States. Its Cork ReHarvest program, which targets both large hospitality operations and individual wine drinkers, pulls an average 70 tons of cork out of the waste stream annually. Since 2009, Spencer says the program has redirected over 200 million corks into the American recycled ecosystem.

“The corks we collect remain in the U.S. and are not shipped to China or other countries. This is important (because) shipping corks to other countries negates any environmental impact of removing them from landfills,” Spencer said.

A cork peg solitaire game made from a square block of wood, photographed at Christine Burns Rudalevidge’s house. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

So instead of DIY crafts that might eventually make their way into the waste stream anyway, these corks go on to live a second useful life as durable, American-made cork flooring, shoe insoles, roofing panels, gaskets, safety helmet liners, bottle stoppers, dartboards, bulletin boards, and cores for golf balls and baseballs.

Advertisement

Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland is one of two places in Maine that collects corks from fellow Maine businesses and individuals using the Cork ReHarvest Program. Allagash Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Zoe Malia is particularly excited about how recycled cork could be used instead of plastic to create buoys, bobbers and aquaculture gear.

“One of our core business values is caring about the environment. So, we feel it’s our responsibility, especially as a relatively newly certified B corporation to look for ways to be as sustainable as possible,” says Malia, making sure to note that her company, per health and safety regulations, uses only new corks in their 750-ml bottles of beers like Curieux and Tripel Ale.

Since last July, Allagash has sent over 85 pounds of used stoppers to the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance. Malia asked bars or restaurants that want to work with Allagash to recycle corks to contact her. More than 100 individuals have signed up for Allagash’s cork recycling incentive program. Individuals who sign up get a punch card, and every time they deposit corks in the drop box in the Allagash tasting room, they get a stamp. After 10 stamps, they get a $10 gift card to spend in the company’s tasting room.

You can also drop off your corks at Bow Street Market in Freeport. Store your spent corks with your reusable grocery bags so the next time you go grocery shopping, you’ll remember to bring both.

After you add the wine to the sautéing garlic, and reduce the liquid, you’ll add the mushrooms and pasta to make White Wine and Mushroom Pasta. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

White Wine and Mushroom Pasta

I like to use a dry white wine for this recipe. You’ll have plenty left over in the bottle to serve with dinner.

Advertisement

Serves 3-4

Kosher salt
1 (one-lb.) box shaped pasta, such as shell (conchiglie) or penne
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound sliced mushrooms
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 ounces finely grated Parmesan (about ⅔ cup), plus more for serving
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid before draining the pasta.

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low. Turn the heat to medium high, add the mushrooms, stir to coat them in the fat, then let them cook, untouched, until nicely browned on one side. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mushrooms to a bowl.

Turn the heat to medium low, add the garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Increase the heat to medium, add the wine and stock, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until you can no longer smell the alcohol and the liquid has slightly reduced. Stir in the lemon juice.

Add the drained pasta, reserved mushrooms and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to the skillet. Stir to coat the pasta with the sauce, which will thicken due to the pasta water. Gradually add the Parmesan, a handful at a time, then the parsley. Continue tossing until a glossy sauce coats the pasta, adding more reserved pasta water if necessary.. 

Serve warm with more grated cheese.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.