Barley from Head to Toe

by forumholitorium

In 1324, Edward II of England decreed that one inch is equal to the length of three barleycorns. If this were knitting and each barleycorn a stitch, I would be in big trouble and the sweater wouldn’t fit. Believe it or not, American and UK shoe sizes also date back to the barleycorn unit of measurement. It looks so simple and demure lying next to the tape measure, but barley hides many secrets. I bet you didn’t know that barley’s genome is 1.3 times larger than the human genome and that researchers have identified 20 different foods and beverages made of barley that are commonly consumed in Ethiopia.


When was the last time you ate barley? Hordeum vulgare was domesticated 10,000 years ago in what is today Israel and Jordan, from where it spread to become a staple food in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India. Growing rapidly in a variety of climates, it is a part of the cuisines of areas of the world as diverse as Morocco, India, Tibet, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The EU is the world’s largest producer and consumer of barley – though I suspect that the majority of the crop goes into feeding animals and making beer. That is the case in the U.S., where English and Scandinavian immigrants introduced the crop so they could continue to brew in the New World. Barley can be grown as a winter crop or a summer crop. Here in Austria, winter crops yield more and are used for animal feed while summer crops go into beer production. I found a statistic stating that in 2002, the average European consumed 1.6 kilograms of barley per year. While I was way below that average last year, I plan on doing my part to increase my personal barley consumption in 2013.

Beans and Barley Soup

This soup grew out of my (still unfulfilled) desire to reproduce the thick orzo e fagioli soups I have eaten in Italy. I have made three different versions in the past three weeks. The basic bean and barley base doesn’t change, but you can alter the melody by mixing and matching the vegetables and herbs.

Olive oil

1 onion, diced

2-4 carrots or leeks sliced into coins

2 turnips or potatoes, diced

2 L / 8 cups water

400 g / 15 oz. cooked cannellini or other white beans

100g / 3.5 oz. barley

2 sprigs or 1 tsp dried herbs (rosemary, thyme, savory)

1 tsp salt

Optional: a few bunches of Swiss chard, kale, or other greens

In a large soup pot, sauté the onion in olive oil until glassy. Add the carrots, turnips, water, and herbs and bring to a boil. Simmer until the vegetables are al dente. Add the beans, barley, and salt and simmer another 30 minutes or until the barley is cooked through. If you are adding greens, put them in about 5-10 minutes before you plan to serve the soup. Serve with freshly ground pepper.

Now that I’m fortified with barley soup and sporting bright new handknit wool socks on my feet, it will be easier to wait out the rest of the winter. Hope you are enjoying the lengthening of the days!