Pearl Barley

Pearl barley (farro) (scientific name - tricutum dicoccum), is a herbaceous plant of the gramineous family, of which every ear contains two (eatable) triangular seeds.


An ingredient of numerous recipes that add to many dishes, from the starters to the sweet course, pearl barley has very antique origins: it was in fact a base element of food of the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. The historical Greek Erodoto (484-425 B.C.) referred to the Greeks substituting barley with pearl barley because of its high energy and nutritional value; through the Greeks this cereal became widely used throughout the peninsola; the Romans in fact made great use calling it tricutum (grain) and in a very specific and more cultivated way far-farris (term of uncertain etymology); they transformed it through a macination to a very white flour employed in the preparation of puls, a sort of meal much used, because - as to how Pliny the Old referred to - was the most common dish in anciemt Rome, and it was also used as a food to be given to sacred hens. Also the flour of pearl barley was used to make the libum, a pizza bread much appreciated and was served, not only to accompany tasty meats - as wrote, for example, the poet Horace in various passages of his Odes and of his Satires -, but also as an offering to the gods during the propitiatry rites. Sometimes the pearl barley seeds were used as pay to be given to the soldiers and were called chicchi della potenza because they were protected by the god of the harvest Cerere. The alimentary use of pearl barley continued through the centuries until the last century when it was forgotten and deliberately ignored for a long time because it was instinctively associated with the condition of poverty, but now pearl barley is becoming more widely appreciated especially in the environmental revival of the traditional humble cooking of Italy.


One of the production areas of Italy in which pearl barley grows is in Tuscany more precisely Garfagnana where still today it is considered a food that assures long life. Certainly it contains precious and complete nutritional elements such as vitamins and antioxidants and that, thanks to its high percentage of fibre, is an excellent biological depurative. The cultivation of pearl barley in Garfagnana is famous also because it is grown without the use of pesticides and fungicides; and the result is of high biological content that satisfies the demands of those who want to refind food and tastes of past times. The semination of pearl barley is done between the end of October and the beginning of November, on ground well ploughed and slightly sloping to avoid the stagnation of water, and a altitude that varies between 300 to 800 metres above sea level; the first shoots show themselves in February and at the end of July the pearl barley is ready to be reaped; it is then stowed in well ventilated depositories for about three months; slowly, slowly the market asks for it without the caryopsis (shell) and shined by an old millstone at the moment of its distribution, and so ensuring that it is at the height of freshness. Garfagnana produces annually about 3,000 quintals of pearl barley thanks to the incentives for its cultivation decided by the Tuscany Region in 1992, when it was considered a product of genetic erosion and so in danger of extinction. The product was relaunched meeting the favour of a large public and in these last few years it has the same market requests and so stimulates the aumentation of production. On the market today there is available two types of pearl barley: true pearl barley (tricutum dicoccum) and farricello (spelt) very different in consistency, dimension and taste, produced from a similar plant like that of pearl barley, but less valued.


Today pearl barley is offered in the best restaurants of Tuscany, because it has re-entered our alimentary culture not as a cereal traditionally used by the poor, but as a biological food well inserted into the mediterranean diet and finally appreciated for its goodness and flavour. The use most widely used of this food in cooking is that of zuppa di farro that is made by two different methods; one traditional, more flavoursome and nutritional (typical of restaurants) but also most laboursome for the digestion, the other that follows modern tendencies to eliminate fats, above all cooked, and the search for flavours using grasses and herbs. Some indications on these two different methods of cooking pearl barley soup helps us to understand how to use this food renewing the traditions in use to the new physiological demands tied to different ways of life and use of energy. The gran farro requires a mash of beans flavoured with salt, onions, sage and chopped with lard, onions, garlic, carrot, celery, majoram, sage and rosemary that is fried for some minutes. The mashed tomatoes are then added, a little nutmeg, a little cinnamon, two cloves and left to boil for twenty minutes. This mixture is then liquidized and the bean broth which should be boiled a few minutes before adding the well rinsed pearl barley. There may be added the rind of pork that in the cooking - which should be slow and last at least forty minutes - enriches this gran farro which is served hot with a pinch of pepper and a sprinkly of some good olive oil. The pearl barley soup instead uses a mash made from all the vegetables from the garden (as said in the past), those available, we may say today; but all: from courgettes to marjoram, from rosemary to potatoes, from fennel seeds to onions etc., etc. This mash is done without frying and without condiment, haricot beans and pearl barley are added and to be cooked slowly, and only when it is cooked can it be flavoured with pepper and laced with olive oil. This soup is tasty and easy to digest. Even though it is true that the method most used for pearl barley is for soup, it is also true that there are various uses of this cereal that may be offered cold such as in a salad or cooked with fish and also with octopus. The range is vast and varied from area to area, tied to the use of local customs, to the culinary culture of the territory in which this ancient cereal is used.