Shavuot, the perfect time to revisit barley

A cheap and comforting grain which is fashionable once again after years in the gastronomic wilderness

By Ruth Joseph, May 28, 2009

As a reader I’ve always been captivated by good narrative, and surely one of the most beautiful romances occurs in the Bible between Ruth the convert and Boaz. She is always pictured gleaning the barley harvest — Boaz tells his young men to leave her some full sheaves and at the end of the day she has all the barley she needs. And the story of Shavuot continues.

And certainly barley (hordeum distichon) — said to be the earliest grain — was hugely important in Biblical times. Although a staple, it was never considered as valuable as wheat. In fact, it was often used as cattle fodder and was deemed a last-resort food in times of famine. The Talmud says: “When the barley is gone from the jar, strife comes knocking at the door.” (Proverbs. Papa Talmud Baba Metzia 59a).

Perhaps this was because the barley flour, with its low gluten content, made a heavy loaf. Nevertheless, barley played an essential role in feeding the Biblical Jewish soldiers and in Exodus 9:31-32, we are told how the plague of hail ruined the barley and flax harvests, “Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in ear and the flax was in bud.”

After growing wild in Southern Persia, its cultivation began about the fifth Egyptian dynasty, continuing through the seventh and 17th.

Roman gladiators were called hordearii or “barley-men”, eating the young barley sprouts to give them strength. And when the Romans introduced barley to Britain, it became the most important grain, used for bread-making, for a gruel-type porridge and for brewing beer. So the Ancient Britons lauded it, decorating coins with its image.

But recently it has lost its popularity. It is seen as a rather heavy, fattening grain; that is until now. But new medical opinion reverses that view.

Now we know it can help in the fight against diabetes and obesity – as the fibre in the barley-grain slows down the process of digestion and carbohydrate absorption in the body, also acting as an appetite suppressant. It may be helpful in lowering high cholesterol. Barley contains 18 vital amino acids and Vitamins C, B1, B2, B6, Folic Acid and pantothenic acid.

Tests prove it assists in healing stomach linings, hence those old wives’ tales that barley-water could sooth sore digestive systems were right after all. Recently it has been used successfully to help irritable bowel syndrome sufferers and tests show it can also assist in the fight against colon cancer.

So think comfort and health; enjoy a bowl of barley soup, even in summer with chicken or a veggie version with onions topped with light grated cheese. Barley can also be used to make an unusual risotto – soak barley overnight for extra tenderness. Then cook until soft, adding asparagus pieces, peas, cooked broad beans or any other fresh spring vegetables.

You can stuff peppers or large field mushrooms with a mixture of cooked barley, chopped coriander, a grating of fresh ginger and maybe a chilli. Drizzle with a little olive oil and bake until tender. Or sit your boiled Shabbat chicken in stock-cooked barley with a sliced orange, adding extra stock, sliced onions, carrots, paprika and a pinch of cinnamon, and bake until chicken is golden brown.

Or try my Barley Tabbouleh — a summer salad that will sit happily next to a piece of grilled fish or wurst and can be used the next day in a lunch-box.

Barley tabouleh

Serves 4

● 200g, (7oz) barley
● 675 ml, (1 pint 2oz) stock
● 1 tablespoon olive oil
● 2 tablespoons lemon juice plus grated rind
● 1 clove garlic peeled and crushed
● 3 spring onions cleaned and finely chopped
● 25g ( 1oz) finely chopped fresh mint
● 25g (1 oz) finely chopped fresh parsley
● Freshly milled salt and pepper
● 3 large tomatoes finely chopped
● 60g (2oz) chopped pistachios or toasted pine-nuts

● Cook barley with stock (pearl barley for approx 1 hour, and pot barley 1½-2 hours).
● When tender add the oil, lemon juice and rind and season well.
● Then when the mixture is cool add the garlic, herbs, spring onion, tomatoes, nuts and seasoning
● Serve immediately or enjoy the next day.

Last updated: 2:39pm, May 25 2011