Barley originated in Western Asia and is probably therefore a post-Hispanic ingredient in the Mexican kitchen. It is a common element in beverages – beer and whisky for instance, roasted barley tea in Japan, even a coffee substitute in Italy – and agua de cebada is in effect a brew, a tisane or even a decoction in that it is made by boiling the cereal in water. The grains are then sieved out while the broth, faintly milky, faintly sweet, is turned into a soothing, refreshing, non-alcoholic drink.
The Yucatecan version is sharpened with lemon juice and rind and gently spiced with cinnamon, and is deliciously cooling as well as soothing. The colour depends on how it is sweetened: piloncillo, the very distinctive unrefined Mexican sugar, produces a rather dark liquid, while white sugar makes it more beige and lacks the faint but necessary caramel flavour; any kind of honey works well, as does maple syrup (certainly not authentic!). I like to use a dark agave nectar which is healthier and contributes a hint of toffee.
What to do with the soft, cooked barley grains? I cannot bear the thought of just discarding them and add them instead to soups, salads and stews.
Barley Water – Agua de Cebada
Serves 2 generously
150 g/5 oz pearl barley
1 litre/1 3/4 pints/4 1/4 cups water
1 large lemon, scrubbed, juice and finely grated zest
1 cinnamon stick, about 5 cm/2 in long
Sweetener – piloncillo, molasses sugar, honey, agave nectar – to taste
Rinse the barley well under cold running water. Place it in a saucepan, measure in a litre of water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat right down, cover the pan and simmer for about 45 minutes, until the grains are tender. Skim off any scum which rises to the surface.
Strain the liquid into a jug and add the lemon zest and cinnamon. Cool and then refrigerate until very cold. Remove the cinnamon stick and stir in the lemon juice. Sweeten to taste.
Pour into tall glasses and enjoy.
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