This, my friends, is a nice glass of barley water: milky in color, so mild in flavor as to be almost tasteless, a little body on the tongue, and one of the most ancient foods you are ever likely to run in to.
It’s the point where archaic drinks find common ground with the aguas frescas.
Long, long ago before Europeans ate raised wheat bread or the Chinese ate rice, barley was the world’s prestige grain. Barley bread was what Gilgamesh ate in ancient Mesopotamia, what Plato and Aristotle ate in Greece, and it was the bread of the Bible. Boiled barley would have been familiar to Confucius and to the unknown authors of the Vedas. The further back you go in history, the more important barley was.
Round about the beginning of our era, though, it began its long fall from grace. Now it is perhaps best known as an ingredient in beer, though much beer is now made from other grains.
If you poke about in many societies, though, barley still has a shadowy existence as a drink.
A special treat in England when I was a child was lemon barley water, not home made but diluted from a bottle sold by Robinson’s, the company that makes jams and jellies.
They also made “patent barley” so that mothers–following a tradition that went back at least to the Roman leader of the Senate, Cato in his book on Agriculture–could quickly put together barley water for a fussing baby, a sick child, an ailing grandmother, or for the whole family as something to cool them on a hot day.
Patent barley is still available but like so many such foods, it’s largest market appears to be in former colonies such as the Caribbean.
But this is to get ahead of the drink.
To make barley water from scratch, you take some pearl barley, that is barley with the tight little hull polished off. Here’s some, labeled cebada perla, that is, pearl barley in Spanish.
To make about 2 cups of barley water, add a third of a cup of barley to 2 cups of water and boil until the barley is soft, probably about half an hour at sea level.
Pour off the liquid and there is your barley water. (The barley that is left is perfect for barley and mushroom soup or beef barley soup).
In fact, barley water is usually brightened up with some kind of citrus. Make a lemonade or a limonada as you normally would, substituting barley water for plain water. It is a delightful drink even if not quite the cure-all that it was long believed to be.
And it is the progenitor of a whole family of barley and barley-like drinks that will be coming soon to this screen.