During the Revolutionary War of the 18th century, Quaker families in New England made household bread from hand-milled barley flour. In 1776, the ancestors of the Hart family, then living in Farmington, Connecticut, specialized in brown barley bread because, as Quakers, it sustained hard-working farmers during the long-hours of toiling the land.
When the rye became moldy (caught ergot) people ate barley bread. Of course, no one new then that rye gets moldy with ergot. But barley bread became the whole grain brown bread made with brown ale during the Revolutionary War Period in 18th century New England.
Working people in 14th to 18th century England and (after 1636) in Colonial America (New England) lived largely on frumentry, which is bulgur wheat (cracked wheat) similar to what is eaten today throughout the Middle East.
Frumentry, the Basic Cracked Grain Porridge Meal
To make frumentry, you mix a cup of bulgur wheat with 5 cups of heated water, milk, meat, or vegetable stock. Let the liquid be absorbed by the cracked grain. Then when fluffy, eat warm or cold. If a person could afford saffron, a pinch of it went into the frumentry. As a side dish to frumentary, you ate a slice or two of whole grain barley bread with fried fig pastry, if you were lucky enough to find a trader from southern Europe who imported figs or olives.
You didn’t have olive oil in Northern Europe. You used mutton fat. In southern Italy, olives, fish, and figs were the staples of the wealthy with rye and barley bread baked by monks and stuffed with rosemary, garlic, onions, raisins, and olives. Bread contained plenty of spices such as cinnamon, saffron, and cloves–if you were lucky enough to live near Venice when the ships came in from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Barley could be grown or bought anywhere ale had been brewed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Barley bread arose from early, medieval English bread-making using barley simply because barley sustained workers that had to plow the earth from dawn to dusk and didn’t need the sugar rush and high-insulin levels created by eating refined white bread that led to faster exhaustion. Here is the old Quaker recipe for 18th century American whole-grain barley bread.
One pound of any whole grain (whole meal) flour or meal.
One eight-ounces cup of barley flour.
1/2 ounce of fresh yeast.
1/3 cup brown ale.
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper or other spice of your choice. Spices used can be similar to the spices you use to mix into turkey stuffing.
Two eight-ounces cup of water.
2 teaspoons of clover or orange blossom (raw, unfiltered) honey.
1/2 tablespoon of spices such as thyme, rosemary, sage, or any other savory spice of your choice.
1/2 cup chopped yellow onions.
1/2 cup chopped dried or fresh figs
Mix the dry ingredients in a warm copper pot. Blend the yeast with the ale with the chopped figs and onions until it looks like a creamy paste. Then mix the paste with one and a half cups of water and the honey. Stir the liquids into the dry ingredients. Mix into a ball of dough.
Knead the dough until it stretches out like elastic. Return the dough to the warm copper pot. Cover it with a dish towel. Leave the bowl sit in a warm, but not hot oven or warm place (about 80 to 90 degrees) until the dough has doubled in bulk.
Punch the dough down. Shape the dough into two round loaves. Make several cuts in the center of the round loaves. Add the chopped onions to the dough.
Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees F. Put the dough into deep cake tins that have a base that you can remove.
Cover the dough with a clean cloth. Leave in a warm place for a few hours until it has risen high. Then bake all the loaves for 25 minutes or until they have a hollow echo when you turn them out upside down and tap them on their bottoms. If they need more baking, cover the loaves with an oiled cover.
Lower the oven heat. Then when done, cover the loaves with a cloth until they are cooled. Do not cut the bread while warm. When the loaves are cold, serve with ale and cooked vegetables or a platter of baked fish.
If you want to go back even further in time, try The Medieval Cookbook, by Maggie Black. The book even has a barley bread and ale recipe from Chaucer’s 14th century era, as made by monks specializing in baking barley bread and brewing brown ale.
White bread during the 14th century belonged to the upper classes, and brown whole-grain bread such as barley bread belonged mostly to the toiling monks that baked the loaves. Fried fig pastries were popular, having been prepared by apothecaries that also sold and mixed spices. Life in the cloister consisted in part of baking barley bread for the monks.