In the movie based on the beloved P.L. Travers' book "Mary Poppins," the self-described “two adorable children” Jane and Michael Banks compose an advertisement for a new nanny. They specify that she must be “kind and witty, very sweet and fairly pretty” and, unlike the recently departed Katie Nanny, she must “never smell of barley water.”
However, other things related to barley were another matter. In one episode in the story, Mary Poppins takes her charges to a sweet shop to buy gingerbread. The proprietor, Mrs. Corry, snaps off a few of her fingers that magically morph into barley sugar candy, a caramel-like confection popular in England. The children are both amazed by the feat and pleased with the treat.
Barley is actually a member of the grass family, and archaeologists have found evidence of it in the wild from North Africa and Crete in the west all the way to Tibet in the east. But it was farmers from a much narrower stretch of land — from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean — who domesticated it. Scientists have confirmed that barley has been cultivated in Syria as far back as 10,000 BCE.
The grain served as a foundation of our ancestors’ diet because it is nutritionally rich, containing good amounts of B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium, as well as small amounts of copper, manganese and calcium. And it was easy to grow, resilient in both the searing desert heat and the winter cold.
And while the substance may or may not...
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