Fields of Barley

In the 15th century, barley comprised the sole grain used to brew beer throughout the Holy Roman Empire, which included beer-loving countries like Germany and the Czech country of Bohemia. Along with its cousin rye, these two popular grains were ground into flour and cereal to feed the poor masses. Once wheat was domesticated, the upper classes eschewed barley as peasant food and embraced wheat as their major grain. (Because of barley’s nutritional value, the peasants probably outlived the upper classes by many years.) In ancient Greece and Rome, bread was made from ground barley flour and became a staple for athletes. Its fiber content and nutritional value were highly prized.

In Ireland and Scotland, beer and scotch whisky are still made primarily with barley. In the U.K. barley wine (which is actually a strong ale) has been a popular English drink for centuries. And during the 1500s, a popular British folk song immortalized a character named John Barleycorn, presumably sung loudly in numerous pubs and taverns, praising the grain and its contribution to popular libations. In 1993, the popular British singer Sting wrote and recorded a haunting ballad called “Fields of Gold” which seems to immortalize this thriving crop. In the U.S. Jack Daniel’s whiskey, the largest selling brand, is made with corn, rye, and malted barley. (note the different spelling of whisky, which is Scottish, and whiskey, which is American.)

Not to be written off as just another starch, centuries ago barley water and tea were often used for medicinal cures, and modern medicine recognizes the grain’s ability to help regulate glucose levels for diabetes, provide excellent high fiber and cardio benefits as well. In the U.S., northern states grow the majority of America’s crop, primarily Montana, Idaho and North Dakota, of which 25% is used for malting, 50% for animal feed. It is also a popular grain used in coffee substitutes. Worldwide production tops 144 million tons annually, with Russian the major producer of barley, France and Germany a distant second and third. Pearl barley is what most Americans recognize, added to soups and sometimes eaten as a grain instead of rice. Barley flakes make a hearty hot cereal, and barley flour can be mixed with wheat for a full-bodied bread or muffin.

Needless to say, like most grains, barley has been domesticated, cultivated and refined over the centuries to produce far more friendly crops and more uses than its ancient ancestor. Unfortunately, barley is not gluten-free and should be avoided by those with allergies. But for everyone else, a daily helping in some form can be highly beneficial. Consider tossing it into a variety of dishes, kneading it into dough, adding it to salads (cooked of course) and as an all-around grain to add fiber and nutrition to your menus. Barley may not be glamorous, but it sure packs a wallop nutritionally.