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Barley Surviving

February 14, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barley just can't get any respect. Here it is, one of our oldest friends-the very first grain domesticated, over 10,000 years ago-but are we grateful? Ancient Greece and Egypt lived mostly on nutritious barley mush and barley bread, and they pretty much turned their backs on it once they could get their hands on other grains, particularly wheat.

It doesn't make many demands about climate. It will even grow in the Himalayas, which is why Tibet is the last country in the world where barley is the chief grain (it's about all that will grow there).

It's easy to raise-the only agriculture some medieval nomads ever practiced was to toss some barley seeds onto a damp spot in the steppe and then come back a few weeks later to harvest it.

Barley is not finicky about soil, either. Archeologists figure they can tell how saline the soil was at any given period in ancient Mesopotamia by checking the official records of the wheat and barley crops. When barley was up, salination was too.

But it has much less gluten than wheat does, so the only kind of bread you can make out of it is a sort of crumbly cracker.

On top of that, it makes bland porridge. In American kitchens, we mostly use it as a thickener/flavoring for soup or stew. More barley goes into animal feed than onto our tables.

It's in no danger of becoming a rarity, though, because there's one thing barley does spectacularly well-as it sprouts, it produces large amounts of the enzymes that break starches down into sugars. As long as people want to be able to brew beer and whiskey, we'll be raising barley.

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