A productive convergence occurred recently between the words in our heads and the products on the shelves. Just as the Co-op started to display bags of Full Belly Farm’s whole Tamalpais Hulless Barley as well as flour ground from it, we were thinking about Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Really. Defending her choice to marry (often) rather than lead the celibate life of a nun, the Wife compares herself to barley bread.
Here are her words from her Prologue, with a modern translation provided by Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Page (http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/gp-par.htm):
I nyl envye no virginitee.
I will envy no virginity.
Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,
Let them be bread of pure wheat-seed,
And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;
And let us wives be called barley-bread;
And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan,
And yet with barley-bread, Mark can tell it,
Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.
Our Lord Jesus refreshed many a man.
The Wife here refers to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, by which Jesus miraculously fed a multitude with 5 loaves and 2 fish. It is actually John (6:9) who specifies that those loaves are “barley.” As the New Testament story and the Wife’s reference to it make clear, Barley was considered a humble grain for bread, less luxurious than bread of “pured” or refined wheat. But it was also already familiar in both biblical times and in the middle ages. Now as then, barley can be used to make the malt in beer, as a sweetener (barley syrup or sugar), eaten whole or rolled in soups or grain salads, and ground into flour for bread. The water it is cooked in can be used for barley water or tea.
Because barley has less gluten than wheat (although it does have some), it can produce a crumbly, low-rise bread. But the breadbaking Sherdo takes a fearless, perhaps reckless approach to throwing grains into bread. Why should barley be an exception? Inspired by Full Belly barley and the Wife’s spirited defense of barley as a symbol of delicious and nourishing imperfection, we started by putting barley in bread. We use our quick-cooking method, described in our post on grains and beans. We soaked the barley in water overnight, then brought it to a boil the next morning, covered it, and left it on the turned off burner (for the residual heat). We then used the cooking liquid and some of the cooked grains for the bread.
It’s surprising how hard it is to find good whole grain bread recipes, partly because it’s hard to get 100% whole grain breads to rise much. For instance, we were disappointed to find how few recipes for whole grain breads we could find even in comprehensive “bibles” of bread-baking. The turning point for us was Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. We have made a habit of Reinhart’s trick of beginning bread baking several days in advance, making a “soaker” of liquid and flour, whole grains, seeds, bran, and whatever else will make up the bulk of the loaf, and a “biga” or starter of flour, water, and a little yeast. This method vastly improves the flavor and texture of whole grain breads and spreads the labor out over several days. Full Belly barley in hand, we used the grain’s cooking liquid in the soaker and big and the grains themselves in the Multigrain Struan recipe. You can find a version of that recipe here: http://www.culinate.com/books/collections/all_books/whole_grain_breads/multigrain_struan. We also substitute Full Belly’s barley flour for some of the whole wheat. And if we’ve got it, a little whole grain rye or pumpernickel too. Is this a soft and lofty sandwich bread? No. But it makes wonderful toast. It’s filling, too, so with a loaf and a fish or two, you could probably satisfy a crowd.