In Italian, barley is “orzo”, providing much confusion for us Americans who are familiar with a rice-shaped small pasta by the same name. To make matters more confusing, Americans make a risotto type dish from this orzo pasta. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, a very typical regional dish is a ‘risotto’ made with barley, or orzo, called orzotto. I have seen recipes in the US for an orzotto, but often these are made with orzo pasta, not barley.
There are two types of barley found in Italy, mondo or hulled barley, which has been minimally processed to remove the hull. It is fiber-rich, and contains several high quality proteins. Perlato, or pearled barley, has been processed further in order to remove the germ and some of the bran. The grains are rounder, and it contains about 30% less nutrients. The mondo barley is used primarily in soups. The perlato barley cooks much faster, and is more often called for in recipes than the mondo type. When cooking with pearled barley, be aware that the amount of ‘pearling’ can vary from type to type, so the cooking time can vary significantly. The more it resembles a elongated grain, the longer it will take to cook.
Barley has been cultivated in Italy since ancient time, probably one of the first grains consumed in its wild form. Roman legionnaires would march off to battle with a bag of barley, which they would later boil in their helmets, making a hearty porridge. Its’ reputation for sustaining fighting forces was widespread; according to Pliny, barley was the special food of gladiators, who were also known as hordearii, or ‘barley eaters’.
Barley was replaced by more easily cultivated crops such as maize, or corn, and is no longer a commonly found grain in the Veneto region, but it appears occasionally in dishes like Crema d’Orzo al Latte (Barley Crema with Milk), a porridge type dish, similar to oatmeal in which barley replaces the oats. As we move north and east from the Veneto, however, we see more barley being cultivated and consumed today. It is particularly well-suited for cultivation at high altitudes, making it an important grain in the mountainous Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions.
In Trentino, it is cultivated in the Adige valley, to the south of Bolzano. In this region, maize or corn is the most important grain, but wheat, oats and barley are grown here has well.
In Friuli Venezia Giulia, barley is one of the most important grains, having been introduced to the area by Jewish peoples who settled in Trieste. Here, the pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) common throughout Italy morphs into orzo e fagoili, barley and bean soup. Also, risottos in this region become ‘orzotto’ when the Vialone Nano rice is replaced with orzo.