Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Barley, Hordeum vulgare, may have been the first cereal to be domesticated in the grasslands of southwest Asia, where it grew alongside wheat. It has the advantage of a relatively short growing season and a hardy nature; it’s grown from the Arctic Circle to the tropical plains of northern India. It was the primary cereal in ancient Babylon, Sumeria, Egypt, and the Mediterranean world, and was grown in the Indus valley civilization of western India long before rice. According to Pliny, barley was the special food of the gladiators, who were called hordearii, or “barley eaters”; barley porridge, the original polenta, was made with roasted flaxseed and coriander. In the Middle Ages, and especially in northern Europe, barley and rye were the staple foods of the peasantry, while wheat was reserved for the upper classes. In the medieval Arab world, barley dough was fermented for months to produce a salty condiment, murri, that food historian Charles Perry has discovered tastes much like soy sauce.