One question I get asked quite a bit is, "Why Oak?" Throughout history wine has been stored in many types of containers. The ancient Greeks and Romans used terra cotta amphora. But these jugs were porous and were often sealed with pine sap giving the wine a very unpleasant resiny taste. Wooden barrels proved perfect and birch, chestnut as well as oak barrels are still used. Wine just seems to have a natural affinity for oak. The shopping starts in the forest. Some of the great wine houses of France actually pick the tree. They tell the barrel makers, also known as coopers, what size barrel they want and whether or not to burn it. The coopers will then build a fire in the barrel. This adds that wonderful toasty quality to the wine. But don't think you can run out and buy a French oak barrel. One 150 year old oak tree produces just two barrels, and are you sitting down, the price is over $1000 a piece!
In Spain they love their festivals. Sometimes it is about recreating mock battles and other times it is about local cuisine. Occasionally the local cuisine is a weapon in the mock battle. In the annual tomatina festival in Valencia, the artillery is the tomato. They hurl eggs and flour in a messy Pamplona festival. But the best of all might just be La Batalla de Vino, the wine battle, in the small town of Haro tucked away in Spain's premier wine growing region, La Rioja. Here participants get bombarded with the local wine. This Bacchanalian festival, is in honor of St. Peter. On the morning of June 29, the Feast Day of the Saint, thousands of people take to the nearby hills armed with plastics jugs, leather bags or whatever is handy and blast each other with wine until everyone is purple. This tradition seems to be based on a dispute over the ownership of these hills between Haro and the neighboring village of Miranda de Ebro. But today, the biggest battle prize is a treasured wine stained t-shirt.
8 onions, sliced 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/3 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 8 cups beef stock 1/4 cup dry white wine 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 1 bay leaf Salt and pepper 1 loaf French bread 2 cups grated Gruyere
1. Saute onions and garlic in oil over low heat until tender and golden yellow. Sprinkle flour over onions, cook a few minutes more, browning the flour well. Add stock and wine and bring to a boil, add thyme and bay leaf. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
2. Meanwhile, slice French bread into 3/4-inch slices and butter both sides. Toast slices on griddle until golden brown. Ladle soup into an ovenproof bowl, add toasted bread and cover with cheese. Place ovenproof bowl on a baking sheet lined with tin foil. Bake at 350 degrees F or 5 minutes under a hot broiler.