Barley (hordeum vulgare) originated in the fields of Asia and is thought to be the first cultivated grain in history, even predating wheat. Nomadic Arabs, who would reconstitute the grain with milk or water found during their travels, first carried bags of crude barley into Italy and other Mediterranean regions. Once reconstituted, protein and iron-rich barley made a nutritious and cheap portable meal— perfect for Roman soldiers and gladiators. In fact, in his accounts of Rome, the ancient historian Plinius refers to gladiators as “hordearii,” i.e. barley-eaters.

At that time, barley was still been used in its whole form, with the hard, virtually inedible hull still intact before cooking. After boiling in milk or water the barley hull would crack, revealing the porous barley pearl (what we eat today) beneath. The ensuing mixture of hot liquid, kernel and pearl yielded a rough meal, a rudimentary precursor of modern day polenta. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Romans learned to grind the hard barley kernels, removing the hull completely to make bread.

Since the advent of grain mills, barley has played a starring roll in hearty Italian soups, such as the wonderful fagioli e orzo (bean and barley soup), adding a rich nutty flavor as well as nutritious substance. Nowadays, the barley we use is ground down to just the pearl of the kernel, minus the hard hull and the bran. While popular in soups and bread, over 50% of the barley grown in the United States is roughly cracked and used as cow feed for livestock, or ground and used as chicken feed. Another 25% is fermented into malt for beer and flavored syrups.