Among the fields of barley

Barley ripening off Sheep Dip Lane, Bridge. July 2014.

Barley ripening off Sheep Dip Lane, Bridge. July 2014.

At this time of the year one of the most beautiful sights in our local countryside is a sea of gold tinged green barley waving and rippling with the breeze as it ripens in the sun. Later of course, the stalks will firm up a little and the heads will all turn golden as the barley ripens ready for harvesting.

Barley, which is actually a species of grass, is one of the oldest crops farmed by man and is the fourth most produced cereal crop in the world today. It is used as a food stuff in soups, stews and bread, as a main ingredient for beers, as an animal feed and it is also made into malt for other beverage and food uses.

It was first grown as a crop at least 10,000 years ago, and in the days of what we know as Ancient Egypt a meal of barley bread and barley beer was the staple diet of the ordinary people. The Old English word for barley was ‘baere’ and it was stored in a ‘barley house’ which they called a ‘barn’ thereby giving us the modern word. Through the centuries baere bacame ‘baerlic’ and then the current ‘barley’.

Out in the fields barley can be easily confused with wheat, but barley is distinguished by its very long ‘awns’ like hairs protruding from the head. There are many different types of barley, but the most discernable differences for the rambler passing by are the standard or dwarf varieties, which have longer or shorter stalks, and the ‘two-row’ and ‘six-row’ varieties. Two- row or six-row defines the number of grains on the head, each being used for different purposes because of different starch, sugar and protein content within the grains themselves. It is interesting to have a look at some barley in a field and see for yourself which type the farmer is growing. Just to confuse matters though, if you see some with four rows of grains on each head, that’s really just a different variety of six row.

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