"Robinsons [Barley Water] has been a part of the Wimbledon experience since Barley Water was invented at the Championships in 1934"
- Wimbledon official website
Ah! Those balmy English summer days, the gentle thwack of catgut on tennis ball. Strawberries and cream, watching the ballboys scurry around the tennis court. Wimbledon. Okay, so barley water wasn't actually invented at Wimbledon, but Lemon Barley Water was (and still is) one of the official drinks of the tennis championships.
As a health-giving drink, barley water has been around for millennia - certainly the Egyptians and Romans knew of it, Greek athletes drank a barley mush before competition to boost their energy. Oh, and what is beer, if not fermented barley water? The wily Egyptians clearly knew a thing or two when they developed that beverage, thousands of years ago.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, there's little doubt that an infusion of barley is healthy, containing B vitamins and anti-inflammatory agents (the enzyme SOD and mucopolysaccharides). In addition, it has diuretic properties, is said to aid digestion and catarrh, and was certainly given to young children and invalids as a general (and inexpensive) tonic. Many quack medicines were based on a mixture of barley water and gin, and it was also used to help soothe babies with colic and sleeplessness, and in the form of orgeat, was also the foundation of other drinks.
Robinson's Lemon Barley Water
The Robinson's company had been selling their patent barley since the mid-1800s "for making superior barley-water in fifteen minutes", which "obtained the patronage of her Majesty and the Royal Family, but has become of general use to every class of the community", as well as being advertised as a thickening agent for soups and broths, and for invalids and children alike.
The Wimbledon connection began in 1934, when one of its sales representatives, Eric Smedley Hodgson, visited Wimbledon and made up a drink for the players from water, barley, lemon juice and sugar. It was a great success, and the following year saw the first commercial production of the drink, which was rapidly followed by lime flavours, orange and even rhubarb!
During the 1950s, the company experimented by producing a range of "fizzers", straws filled with fruit flavours which were blown into milk or water, following the trend for fizzy drinks ("pop" in common British usage). Sadly for the company, they were not a success, but the company did continue to produce a wider range of barley water flavours, which continue to delight. So "British" are they that many of the companies catering for ex-pat Brits sell it, albeit at horrendously expensive prices.
Although the Robinson's company has been absorbed by the Britvic company, the marque continues to be a staple, and is still associated heavily with Wimbledon, to the point of being one of the corporate sponsors of the Championships.
Making your own
So you want to try it? That, or you are one of the ex-pats mentioned earlier, but don't want to pay the $9 a litre you'll be charged for it? Try one of these delicious recipes, garnered from cookbooks and the 'net...
1 cup of barley
3 quarts water
pinch of salt
Rinse the barley, then combine with water and salt in a large pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for between 2 and 24 hours (depending on how thick you want the drink. Keep adding water to keep about a pint in the pan. Finally, strain the barley off and flavour the water with honey as desired.
Chaddesden Barley Water
1 tablespoon pearl barley
Peel of 4 lemons, cut into strips or roughly grated
8 lumps of sugar (about 2 tablespoons, or to taste)
4 pints boiling water
Pour boiling water over the barley to scald
it, then strain and discard the water. Put the scalded barley into a basin with the lemon peel and sugar. Pour the water over it and leave to cool before pouring the liquor off. Cool and serve with slices of lemon.
The Roman Way
60g/2 oz pearl barley
125 ml/¼ pint sweet white wine
2 tbsp honey
The method is simple enough - simply simmer the barley in 2 pints of water for a couple of hours, strain off and mix with the wine and honey and add more water to make 2 pints of liquor.
There are, of course, countless variations on the theme, mostly on sweetening and flavouring the drink. Honey goes well, and the addition of fruit juices adds another dimension. It is mostly enjoyed cooled (or possibly heated in a huckle-buff), but is equally pleasant served warm. Drink, enjoy, and good health!