Beremeal bannock with Orkney cheese and rowan jelly
Bere, pronounced bear, is an ancient landrace of barley that has been cultivated in Scotland for many centuries. Unlike modern varieties of barley, which produce two rows of seed on each spike, bere like some other old varieties produces six rows of seed on each spike. Another old name for bere is “bygge” or “big” probably originating from “Bygg” the Old Norse for barley. Norwegian vikings may have introduced bere from Scandinavia as far back as the 8th century, or it may have descended from even older prehistoric Scottish barley making bere one of the oldest varieties in the world that is still cultivated.
Whatever the geographic origin of bere the centuries long cultivation of bere in Scotland has given rise to adaptations to local environment growing well on the more nutrient poor acidic peaty soils and requiring less fertiliser than other modern varieties. Growing very rapidly in long summer days experienced in Northern Scotland means bere is sown late in the spring but is also often the first to be harvested and is known locally as the ’90-day’ barley.
Oatmeal is well known as the foundation of traditional Scottish diet and food culture however, this was not always the case. Further back in the past barley ranked alongside oats as a staple food of the people of Scotland. Barley is still an important crop although now this is largely malted for the production of whisky and is rarely consumed as a regular food. One of the few places it is still used is as pearled barley in traditional stews like Scotch broth.
Bere is unusual among barley grown in the UK in that it is used for milling into flour: Most barley grown in the UK is used as animal feed or in beer or whisky production. As bere was once the only variety of barley cultivated in many parts of Scotland, it would also have been used for making other products such as beer and whisky. Bere was gradually replaced over the past century by modern higher yielding barley varieties. These modern varieties of two-row barley have a greater starch content and less protein making them more suitable for malting for whisky and beer production. As barley also fell out of favour as a food and distilleries turned to new types of barley the production of bere decreased dramatically. By 2004 there was no cultivation of bere on mainland Scotland and on the Outer Hebrides its cultivation had decreased to an estimated six to twelve crofters Scholten et al. 2004
Bere was widely used for whiskey making until the late 1800’s and there have been recent attempts to encourage the development of bere whisky with Isle of Arran Distillers working with the University of the Highlands and Islands Orkney College to produce a new bere whisky. Bere was mentioned as “bear” in a poem by the great bard himself titled Scotch Drink providing a glimpse into the importance of barley in his time.
Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus
An’ crabbit names an’ stories wrack us
An’ grate our lug
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us
In glass or jug
O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink
In glorious faem
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink
To sing thy name!
Let husky wheat the haughs adorn
An’ aits set up their awnie horn
An’ pease an’ beans, at e’en or morn
Perfume the plain
Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn
Thou king o’ grain!
The Orkney Islands, a group of islands lying off the northern tip of Scotland are the one place to have preserved bere as a commercial crop helping to ensure its survival into the 21th Century. As wheat does not grow well in such northerly climes barley has long been a staple grain of the islands. On Orkney, bere flour is still used for making round, unleavened bread called bannocks that are baked on a griddle while in other parts of Scotland this has largely been forgotten. The flour is known as Beremeal, pronounced bearmeal, the same term used in oatmeal.
The survival of Bere cultivation on Orkney appears to be due largely to Barony Mills on the island of Birsay, a 19th Century water powered mill that has continued buying bere from local farmers to produce Beremeal for the local Orcadians. Beremeal from Barony Mills is now available in Real Foods on Broughton Street in Edinburgh, from where I purchased by Beremeal, and it is available from their online store.
Marian McNeil provides an “Old Method” for making beremeal bannocks in her book The Scots Kitchen. Originally these flat round cakes were made without any raising agent producing a thin flat bread something akin to an Indian Chapati. However this, more chewy bannock is probably less palatable to most modern tastes. She also gives a “Modern Method” using bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk to produce a bannock more bread-like in texture. This modern recipe includes the addition of a small amount of wheat flour which I have omitted to experience a more original barley flavour.
Barley-meal, flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt, buttermilk
Put into a bowl a pound of barley-meal, four ounces of flour, two small teaspoons of cream of tatar and half a teaspoon of salt. Mix well. Put three teacups of buttermilk into a jug and into it stir two small teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda. Stir briskly, and, as it fizzes up, pour it into the flour mixture. Make into a soft dough, turn out on a floured board, handle as little as possible, but roll out lightly to about half an inch in thickness; cut into rounds the size of a meat-plate, place on a hot girdle, and bake (not too quickly) until the underside is brown; turn the bannock and brown the other side. The proportion of flour may be increased to taste.”
I include two recipes here that I have used. The first is closest to Marian McNeil’s recipe using the acidity of the buttermilk to react with the baking soda to give some rise to the bannock. The second using milk instead of buttermilk and so requires baking powder. The taste is not significantly different to me. My recipe is also based on the adapted version of the one quoted above from Catherine Brown’s book, Scottish Cookery.
- 125 grams / 4 ounces of Beremeal
- 1 teaspoons of baking soda
- Pinch of salt
- Buttermilk to mix
- 125 grams / 4 ounces of Beremeal
- 3 teaspoons of backing powder
- Pinch of salt
- Whole milk to mix
Heat a griddle or frying pan until moderately hot and dust with flour.
Mix the flour, salt and raising agent in a bowl and then gradually mix in the buttermilk or milk until it forms into a soft dough.
Put the dough onto the hot griddle or frying pan and press out gently with your fingers into a 15 cm (6 inch) round bannock.
Bake on both sides, turning once, for about 5-10 minutes on either side.
The resulting bannock is rather nice hot from the griddle with a thick layer of butter and accompanied by some good cheese. Its charm really lies in the flavour of the barley, the rich earthy taste of the grain is really quite distinctive. Whether, as suggested by a certain Hugh Haliburton, they may induce a beauty to the skin and sweetness the the temper I cannot say.
“Did our swank country lads know how appetisingly sustaining a barley scone can be made – especially did our comely country lasses, our rustic Helens and Hebes, realise the virtues, of beauty to the skin and sweetness the the temper, which reside in bannocks of bear-meal – there would be, I am firmly convinced, such a revival of this well-approved ancient feeding-stuff as would send down the prices of cheat and drive tapioca and similar foreign stinking ware that jaups in luggies clean out of caup and market.”
Brown C (1989) Scottish Cookery. Richard Drew Publishing Ltd.
Jarman R J (1996) Bere barley – a living link with the 8th century? Plant Varieties and Seeds. 9 (3):191-196
“Bere barley, grown in northern Scotland and the Orkney Isles, is milled for flour. Grains from the 1995 harvest were compared by visual examination and by acid-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis with gene bank accessions and historical specimens found at the NIAB. Visual and electrophoretic similarities were found. The geographical isolation of Bere barley from other barley varieties has probably helped maintain it as a discrete ”variety”. Bere barley is probably directly related to ”beare-barley” grown in the 16th century. The author speculates that Bere barley can trace its direct ancestry back to the 8th century making it one of the oldest varieties in the world that is still grown.”
Martin P and Chang X (2008) Bere Whisky – rediscovering the spirit of an old barley. The Brewer and Distiller International. 4 (6): 41–43
Martin P and Chang X (2007-06). Bere and Beer: Growing old cereals on northern islands. The Brewer and Distiller International. 3(6): 27.
McNeill F M, Brown C and Macintosh I (2010) The Scots Kitchen. Birlinn Ltd.
The Scottish Government (2002) Chapter 14: A Detailed Review of the Contribution Made to Biodiversity by Scots Bere. The Status of Traditional Scottish Animal Breeds and Plant Varieties and the Implications for Biodiversity. The Scottish Government.
“The importance of the historical role of Scots Bere in Scottish agriculture is indicated by the fact that until 1960 the Scottish Agricultural statistics recorded barley and bere together. Scots Bere is a six-row barley and an example of a traditional variety with specific adaptation to soils that are of low pH. According to Jarman (1996) Scots Bere was still grown in Orkney and Caithness, in the late 1990s, as a spring crop, although only 5-15 ha was grown annually. It is susceptible to frost, but grows very rapidly, especially in long summer days such as experienced in Northern Scotland. Because of its very rapid growth it is sown late but is often the first to be harvested and is known locally as the ’90-day’ barley. Scots Bere is weak strawed and susceptible to foliar disease, especially mildew and is milled to make traditional ‘bere bannocks’.”
Theobald H E, et al (2006) The nutritional properties of flours derived from Orkney grown bere barley (Hordeum vulgare L.). Nutrition Bulletin. (31): 8–14.
“Bere barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) is a six-row barley landrace, the ancestry of which may go back to the 8th century or earlier. The cultivation of bere on any scale is currently restricted to Orkney, although it was at one time grown more widely in Scotland. Within the UK, bere is unique in being the only barley grown commercially for milling and, in Orkney, flours derived from bere are traditionally used for making bannocks, bread and biscuits. There is potential for the use of bere flours in a much wider range of foods, and for this reason the nutritional properties of such flours were investigated. The energy, macronutrient and micronutrient content of both wholemeal and white flours derived from bere were measured. Flours derived from bere grown in Orkney contain a wide variety of nutrients including significant quantities of folate, thiamin, pantothenic acid, iron, iodine and magnesium. Although the nutrient content of bere bannocks has previously been published, to our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the nutritional properties of wholemeal and white flours derived from bere.”