PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am

When people think of barley - if they think of it at all - it's probably when they notice the small grains in the bottom of a bowl of soup. Knowledgable drinkers, though, know that without barley, many of their favourite tipples wouldn't be the same. The grain is used in varying proportions in certain types of beer and whisky (or whiskey, depending on which country it comes from). It can also be made into barley wine and non-alcoholic, refreshing 'barley water', which is believed to cool a fever. While most of us won't have the opportunity to ferment or distil barley at home, we can appreciate it in other culinary preparations.

Barley is easy to recognise from its small, oval shape bisected on one side by a darker line. The grain is refined to varying degrees in the same way rice is. Like rice, barley is more nutritious when it is a 'whole' grain with just the husk removed, although people tend to find it more palatable when it is refined further by removing the bran and polishing it. It is also ground into flour and spouted and dried to make highly nutritious malt.

Barley is not very popular as a food and much of it is grown to fatten livestock. This is unfortunate because it has an unusual, distinctive texture that is both slippery and chewy. The grain is quite versatile: I've eaten it in soups, salads, stews, and even a barley risotto, where it is used instead of rice. Perhaps it would be more popular if it didn't take so long to cook - it takes about 45 minutes to become tender.

When I was growing up, one of my favourite canned soups was 'Scotch broth', which was made with lamb, vegetables and barley. Simmer lamb breast with roughly chopped leeks (wash them well to remove the dirt), carrots, celery and a whole bay leaf. After about two hours, strain the broth through a colander. Discard the vegetables and bay leaf and also strain off the layer of fat that floats to the surface of the broth (if you have time, let the broth come to room temperature then chill in the fridge; the fat will solidify and can be pulled off the surface easily). Remove the meat from the bones and dice the lamb. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a clean soup pot and add diced carrots, celery, leeks and turnips. Season with salt and pepper and saute for a few minutes, then add some rinsed barley, the lamb broth and meat. Bring to the boil then lower heat and simmer until the barley is tender, about one hour.