The Eminence Of Barley

Of all the cereal grains I like barley the most.  It has a smooth consistency and a nourishing quality that one does not find in other grains, such as rice or oats.  One reads of its ubiquity in ancient Rome, when it was a true food staple, and found its way into the bowls of gladiators, soldiers, scholars, scribes, and aristocrats.  It could be pounded into a porridge, baked into a bread, and fermented; added to soups or stews, it acted as a fortifying agent.

And yet it is not easy to find barley today; it seems to be confined mainly to health food stores and internet sites.  If you enter your local supermarket, you are unlikely to find barley stocked alongside bags of rice or beans.  It is not popular, or at least not as popular as it used to be.  I was thinking about this several weeks ago, when I began to crave a good soup or stew made with barley as an antidote to the cold weather.  Pearl barley was available for purchase only on the internet or at select health food stores.  Yet why should this grain be seen as a specialty food?  What is it not more common in its raw form?

Barley, you were once Lord of the Grains!  And now see how far you have fallen:  the masses hardly know you at all.  Pliny (Nat. Hist. XVIII.18) describes barley as the softest of all the grains (hordeum frugum omnium mollissimum est).  He even describes how farmers would feed pills made of roasted, ground barley to cattle, as a way of augmenting their health and musculature.  Barley meal was also, according to Pliny, used as a medicine (hordei farina et ad medendum utuntur).

To say barley has “fallen” is not an exaggeration.  It is not easy to find in modern supermarkets.  What was once a food staple, what was once an eminent medicine, is now confined to specialty stores.  I have been reading my Hippocrates with great care lately; the old Greek physician has much of interest in his pages.  I was surprised to find, in his Regimen in Acute Diseases, the veneration with which he held barley.  In one form or another, it seems to have been one of those universal medicaments.  Barley occupied a special place as a way to restore the health of patients; along with fomentations, baths, enemas, suppositories, drinks, and potions, Hippocrates strongly believed in a decoction of barley called ptisan (in Greek, πτισάνη).  His translators have rendered this word as “gruel”; we may suppose it could be offered in a range of consistencies and viscosities.  Sometimes he recommends the water in which barley was boiled, at other times he recommends eating the boiled grain itself.  He explains further:

Now I think that gruel made from barley has rightly been preferred over other cereal foods in acute diseases, and I commend those who preferred it; for the gluten of it is smooth, consistent, soothing, lubricant, moderately soft, thirst-quenching, easy of evacuation, should this property too be valuable, and it neither has astringency nor causes disturbance in the bowels or swells up in them.  During the boiling, in fact, it has expanded to the utmost of its capacity.  [Reg. in Acute. Dis. X; trans. by W.H.S. Jones]

Hippocrates in this same treatise also mentions some interesting ancient tonics that I had never heard of.  Hydromel was a mixture of honey (mel) and water (hydro).  Oxymel was a mixture of honey and vinegar.  Even wine had medicinal uses.  One wonders whether any improvement could be made on these tonics as remedies for the common winter cold.  My own personal experience with barley has reinforced my positive opinion of it.  In the mid-1990s I lived in Seoul, Korea for a year, and during that time became acquainted with a barley-water that the Koreans serve as a table drink in all seasons.  They call this infusion bori cha, or barley tea; roasted barley is boiled in water and left to steep.  The resulting drink is somehow very nourishing, especially when taken with food.  The Koreans also have a similar grain-drink made by boiling roasted corn in water; this drink they call oksusu cha, or corn tea, from the Korean word for corn (oksusu).  To this day I prepare both of these drinks, along with the occasional ginseng tea (insam cha).  What do the Koreans know about barley that we have forgotten?  I have read that bori cha contains concentrations of vitamin B, and may assist the body in other ways.

So it is that even the simplest foods can be nourishing, and even the simplest things give us pleasure.  It is as Thomas Browne said in Religio Medici:

I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, tho it be but of an Horse.  It is my temper, & I like it the better, to affect all harmony, and sure there is musicke even in the beauty, and the silent note which Cupid strikes, farre sweeter than the sound of an instrument.

And yet these beautiful things, these healthful things, are glossed over in our daily lives.  They are barely noticed, if at all.  Who, upon seeing a bag of barley tossed on the shelf of a health-food store, would imagine its distinguished pedigree?  What mind’s eye might envision its presence in the bowl of the battered and fatigued gladiator, or the bowl of the harried and harassed senator breakfasting before a session in the Curia, or the manager of some vast latifundiae in the Italian countryside?  What medicinal history might place a cup of boiled barley-water beside the pillow of some aged Greek patient on the island of Cos, dutifully attended to by the wise Hippocrates himself?

I say that the lowliest speck of grain has a role to play in this great drama of life.  I can examine a handsome picture, though it be but of a barley-corn.  Each granule has its own unique shape and form, if we see each one under the power of some giant magnifying lens.  No two human faces are exactly alike; and it is just as true that no two kernels of grain are alike.  They have their distinctive properties and nutritive qualities imparted to them by Nature; but it is not for us to decide what role will be played by all objects in Creation.  It is pure conceit for us to believe we know many things.  We do not even know a fraction of a fraction of what inhabits Creation.  Eminent pearl of barley-corn!  Thou art known to us hardly at all!    

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