Barley Bread for Breakfast

Barley Grain

Barley Grain

Welcome back to the dig!
Today, we’re traveling back 8,000 years to unearth the origins of this week’s key breakfast ingredient: Barley! Near the end of the stone age (also known as the Neolithic time period), the men and women of the fertile crescent, a band of well-watered land spanning from Egypt in Northern Africa to the Persian Gulf in Southwest Asia, were on the brink of a discovery that would change the world forever. These people groups and civilizations had abandoned nomadic lifestyles in favor of settling down in one general area. For settlers in what is now known as the West Bank region, the existence of wild cereal grains inspired them to develop what may be the first, true system of agriculture. Out of this initial grain of inspiration grew an ancient food revolution, where farming and the domestication of crops became truly widespread.

Out of Three, One

During the dawn of agricultural technology, three cereal grains were formally domesticated (part of the Neolithic Founder Crops): einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and barley. While einkorn and emmer can still be found today, and are prized for their ability to grow on poor, mountainous soils, barley clearly won the popularity contest when it came to Neolithic grain choice. From Egypt to Nepal, barley was domesticated and prized for its adaptable use in beer and bread.

Barley for Sacrifice, Health, and Exorcism

Beyond its use in food, however, barley enjoyed a baffling level of popularity in religious circles. In the Jewish Pentateuch (written sometime between 1,400 and 500 BCE), barley was specifically called on to be used as a religious sacrifice. In a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in the 600’s CE, the founder of Islam prescribed barley as a medicinal food, which could cure a variety of ailments. Perhaps most interestingly (to me at least), the Anglo-Saxon leaders, most likely between 900 – 1,000 CE, fed cheese on barley bread (imbued with exorcising words of power) to accused criminals in the belief that a guilty man would be unable to eat the bread, and would instead be racked with convulsions and choking. This mystical use of grain was not invented by the Anglo-Saxons, but instead was borrowed from the ancient Greeks, who developed the fortune-telling practice of Alphitomancy, or “divination using barley.”

Greco-Roman Barley Bread

Roman Coin Depicting Barley and a Date Palm

Roman Coin Depicting Barley and a Date Palm

When we’re asked to think of ancient culture, images of alabaster columns, enormous temples, both to gods and to entertainment, and Italian cooking often come to mind. Even Google, when searching for the innocuous term “ancient” instantly suggests that we peruse the ghostly white ruins of Greece and Rome. Because of the unmistakable impact that these ancient civilizations have had on our modern world, I’ve decided to devote our first, ancient breakfast recipe to these cultural monoliths. According to some scholars and researchers, the most common food eaten for breakfast in these ancient realms would have been a hunk of bread (barley bread for the Grecians and Roman gladiators, wheat bread for the rest of Rome). If you had the means, it was also common to adorn your bread with honey or dried fruit (a practice I highly recommend for today’s recipe).

Barley Breakfast Bread Recipe

Complete recipe yields one short loaf of unleavened (yeast-less) bread

Ingredients

  • 3 cups barley flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 Tablespoons baking powder
  • 2 Tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup olive oil – avoid extra virgin olive oil (or another oil of your choice)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk

Directions

  1. Wet and Dry Barley Bread Ingredients

    Wet and Dry Barley Bread Ingredients

    Preheat your oven to 350 F / 175 C

  2. Lightly coat a 9″ x 5″ bread pan with oil
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, oil, eggs, and milk
  5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry mixture, and stir well until combined
  6. Pour the batter into your greased bread pan, and cook for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the bread reaches an internal temperature of 190 F / 85 C
  7. Allow to cool in the pan for several minutes before turning the loaf onto a cooling rack.
  8. Let cool, then slice and enjoy with a drizzle of honey, and a dried date or two!

Because this bread lacks the fluffiness-imbuing element of yeast, the final consistency of this recipe feels and tastes more like a dense, lightly sweetened cake. Because it is so dense, dipping or drizzling it in honey (or a moistening agent of your choosing) is recommended. However you take your barley, though, I hope you’ve enjoyed this excavation into barley: a grain with a mystical past and a healthful future!

Until next time!
Nate

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Categories: Baking, Bread, Breakfast, History, Year Round Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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