“Our bread doesn’t shine like that,” said Cordelia.
“That is the pity of it,” said the peasant woman.
“What makes yours shine?” asked Cordelia.
“The sun in the wheat,” said the peasant woman.
-The Shining Loaf by Isabel Wyatt
In January this year I planted four kinds of hulless barley, the kind that is easiest to thresh: Schrene, Faust, Ethiopian, and Tibetan.
They started out as little wisps of grass, and only at the very end, when the barley bloomed and the seeds heads emerged from the stalks seemingly overnight, did their differences appear.
First was the Tibetan barley, classic in appearance, long-bearded and four-rowed. Next came the Ethiopian barley, crowned all over with so many full 2-rowed heads, the kind for malt, all you could see were the long silvery beards, tall and beautiful to look at.
Faust surprised us, with barley heads that looked like caterpillars, no beard to speak of. Schrene, with short, stout barley heads, appeared last of all.
Barley isn’t usually grown here, but it did very well. The spring weather patterns are ideal. It doesn’t mind cold, so sown in January it grew quickly on the rain from the winter cold fronts, and it ripened in May, our very hot dry season of early summer.
Lodging, or the stems being knocked down by hard rain or wind, is the biggest challenge for harvesting barley, and was never a problem this dry and golden May.
When the stems were hollow, the heads were turning from green to golden, and the barley was full in its husks, we harvested it by hand. It wasn’t fully ripened, but if it is cut and stooked into shocks in the field it will dry and ripen more quickly. The heavy summer rains we usually get in early June were coming to break the dry spell.
The cut barley field in the hot, dry sun smelled beautifully, a little like cut grass, a little like fresh earth, and a little like baking bread.
It was only a week, maybe, until the barley had ripened fully, and was no longer soft and plump, and fell easily from the husks.
We threshed it, head by head, by feeding it into a corona mill with the grinding plate replaced by a circle of rubber.
My daughters and I winnowed it, working at night when the sky felt heavy and the air was suddenly damp with the coming rain.
We set a box fan outside and dropped handfuls of threshed grain into a tray in front of it.
The chaff blew away, making an itchy, golden pile behind the tray of heavy grain.
We got so much barley! I planted a handful and got many, many handfuls in return. Some set aside to plant next winter, some to grind for bread.
And another gain… natural straws. My children are partial to drinking with straws, and we always have several of the plastic variety floating around the kitchen with a good many teeth marks at the end. How nice to put them in the fire and not the trash when they have been found floating for a day or two in what was once a kefir smoothie and now resembles an eccentric cheese.
Now as much as we could spare was ground into flour. As i ground the fresh grain it smelled like bread already, toasted in the oven.
Once the flour was ground it was time for the microorganisms in our sourdough leven to work on the grain, making it flavorful and light.
Only flour, salt, and fresh sourdough starter went into our bread, and it is worked and kneaded, and set in a buttered bowl to rest.
The next day it is shaped into loaves, small ones because my old oven with the fire cement crumbling in the fire box bakes hot, and small loaves bake best. The risen dough is soft and spongy. The yeasts have been at work.
First a fire must be kindled, while the bread rises a little more, and the oven must be very hot. The small loaves are brushed with beaten egg and decorated with poppyseeds.
The bread came out of the oven toasty and perfectly baked. The crust was brown but the inside of the little loaves was slightly crumbly, but light and soft, tasting of sunshine.
Fresh bread from seed, and butter from grass, the best things together. Not only does it fill your belly, it lights the spirit.
Though it is long, i would like to share this traditional barley song that lightened our work as we cut and stooked and threshed and winnowed and ground and kneaded the barley for our bread:
There were three men who came out of the West, their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die.
They’ve plowed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in, thrown clouds upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead.
They let him lie for a very long time, til the rains from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprang up his head, and so amazed them all.
They let him stand til midsummer’s day, when he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John has grown a long, long beard, and so become a man.
They hired men with the scythes so sharp, to cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him about the waist, serving him most barbarously.
They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks, who pierced him to the heart.
And the loader he has served him worse than that, for he’s bound him into the cart.
They drove him round and round the field, til they came onto a barn
And these three men made a solemn vow on poor John Barleycorn.
They’ve hired men with crab tree sticks, to beat and crush his bones,
And the miller he has served him worse than that, for he’s ground him between two stones.
And little Sir John in his nut brown bowl, and he’s whisky in the glass,
And little Sir John in his nut brown bowl is the strongest man at last.