I had a ploughman's lunch the other day; he wasn't very pleased about it.
-Tommy Cooper, comedian.
The interior decor of many English public houses, with their blackened ceiling beams, yellowing walls and horse brasses can evoke a feeling of nostalgia for a bygone time and a simpler life. To complement this you will, as often as not, find on the menu of those pubs that have pretensions to be restaurants, tucked away with the vegetable lasagne and the children's meals, the ploughman's lunch. With its connotations of an earlier rustic age, it evokes for the modern man, who has probably never turned a sod in his life, the clean-living, hard-working existence of the labourers of yesteryear, pausing in their daily toil to reap the fruit of their endeavours.
The ploughman's lunch is a peculiarly English lunchtime pub-grub platter on many public house menus, but is by no means confined to England. Cheap and cheerful, it excels as a good alternative to the 'chips with everything' offerings and can usually be relied on to provide a filling, tasty and nutritious snack, which, when washed down with a pint of ale, can be a meal fit for the gods. There are possibly as many versions as there are chefs and the quality varies from pub to pub, but it qualifies as a vegetarian1 meal and has the advantage that not too much can be done to adulterate it. All in all, a ploughman's will nearly always be acceptable, but it can be sublime.
The origins of the ploughman's lunch are uncertain at best, lost in the mists of time — or at least somewhere in the 1960s. The Oxford English Dictionary records that the first mention of a ploughman's lunch is to be found in the Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, the 18th Century author, where it is described variously as a sandwich, albeit with an unnamed filling, and a ploughman's meal of boiled beef and Scotch broth.
Whether any ploughman ever partook of a ploughman's lunch — setting forth with his horses, plough and lunchbox packed with the ingredients that are presented over a bar counter these days — is debatable, but as the ingredients are derived from the basic fare that would have been found in a rural setting of an earlier century, it is likely that something approaching its equivalent was taken to the fields by our incumbent labourer. In previous centuries the main meal of the day, dinner, was usually taken around midday. But for our labourer to return from the fields for three courses and then head back for an afternoon's work until sunset would seem unlikely, and gives some credibility to the ploughman's provenance.
However, there is currently no further recorded mention of the ploughman's until 1970, when it crops up in a cheese reference handbook. The most likely modern origin of the ploughman's lunch lies in the late 1960s, when the British Milk Marketing Board and the Licensed Victuallers Association actively promoted the ploughman's as a vehicle to increase the sales of its main ingredient, cheese, to the British public through the public house trade.
The Basic Ingredients
The ploughman's is a simple meal consisting of the traditional ingredients of cheese, bread, butter and pickles. Every pub chef will have his or her own version of what constitutes a ploughman's and there are many variations, some better than others.
Cheese is the mainstay of the ploughman's lunch and is usually served in the form of a large slice of cheddar, in a quantity that would be the average person's ration for a week. Ben Gunn, marooned on Treasure Island, dreamed of a morsel of cheese, and the portion served in a ploughmans would satisfy even his greatest cravings. Other variations on the cheese ingredient are a blue stilton or a soft brie. If your chef is of an adventurous disposition you may even find a selection of all three on the plate. If, however, the menu shows only a choice of the three, and you are the one feeling adventurous, there is no harm in exploring the chef's versatility by asking for a piece of each.
The quality of the cheese largely determines the quality of the meal. A good crumbly cheddar which originates from somewhere near Cheddar Gorge is ideal and can really make the dish, but as often as not a cheap, cloying cheddar from the supermarket, fit only for a mousetrap, is offered.
A crusty white or brown bread is usually served, but it can also be a baguette or a brown hoagie. Nothing wrong there, but a nice piece of the crusty white is the preferred option, which also has the advantage of providing an opportunity to the diner to regress even further and satisfy any primal urge they might feel to tear their food apart with fingers and teeth.
Butter is a must - lots of it, hopefully served in a small brown earthenware pot to enhance the rustic appeal. However, you are more likely to get a couple of chilled butter-pats wrapped in foil, which must be separated from each other with the back of a knife. Margarine is sometimes substituted, but this is a big no-no with a ploughman's. Only the taste of butter will do.
These will usually come in the form of a large spoonful of brown Branston Pickle or a couple of pickled onions. Branston is a tangy, vegetable-based sweet pickle and is often the preferred choice over pickled onions, which tend to overwhelm the dish with their vinegar flavour. Another possible alternative is a piccalilli, a yellow-coloured, tangy, vegetable and mustard pickle which in the commercially-manufactured version is heavy on the vinegar flavour. If you are very lucky you may occasionally find that the chef has his own homemade pickle, chutney or piccalilli which can add a new and different flavour to the meal.
Cheese, bread, pickle and ale on their own are good, but basic. Extra foods turn the meal into something more special with the addition of flavour, texture and colour. The usual additions are a green salad, including crisp lettuce; rocket, a green-leafed vegetable, which gives a peppery flavour; and celery, which lends a crispness and flavour to the dish. Spring onions also add flavour to the salad, but are better when the pickled onions element is not present as well. Radishes add peppery heat and colour while half a red or green dessert apple, sliced, is a well-known accompaniment to cheese.
The salad can be garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg or beetroot, neither of which should be of the pickled kind. Another addition to the basic meal is coleslaw: a mixture of shredded white cabbage, carrot and onion in mayonnaise.
Variations on a Theme
However, almost anything goes in some establishments and variations on the basic theme to provide a choice for all tastes can detract from the basic simplicity and spoil an otherwise pleasant meal. In place of the cheese you may find sliced ham or a wedge of pâté. Either are perfectly good if that is your preference, but they detract from the basic simplicity and the meal is no longer vegetarian. Other offerings in place of the cheese include sausages, black pudding or Grosvenor pie2. When we recall Sir Walter Scott's feast of beefsteak and Scotch broth, all these options are equally as valid.
Don't Accept Pale Imitations
I went into an olde English pub the other day and asked for a ploughman's lunch. They sent me next door to the Wimpey Bar where all the old ploughmen go for theirs.
In the past, the word 'ploughman's' has been appended to various pre-packaged snacks to give them an undeserving rustic image, but they are nothing like the real thing. Cheese and pickle sandwiches, pork pies with added Branston pickle and cheese snack-pots have all had the prefix 'ploughman's' appended to them to add an image of wholesomeness. Unfortunately, they are pale imitations of the real ploughman's lunch and should be shunned in preference to the real thing.
The Metaphorical Ploughman's
The Ploughman's Lunch was used as the title of a 1983 film, directed by Richard Eyre and written by Ian McEwan, which starred Jonathan Price and Tim Curry. The faux traditional dish of a ploughman's lunch was used as a metaphor for media corruption, manipulation and self interest in a setting of the post Falklands War era of 1980s Britain. The film presents a bleak picture of the distortion of truth by the news media and makes a comment on the social health and values of the nation at the time.