Good Taste Food & Drink » Blog » Ploughman’s Lunch: A History

Ploughman’s Lunch: A small meal of bread, cheese and pickle eaten in the middle of the day, especially served in a pub (Cambridge Dictionaries Online).

  • Cheese
  • Crusty bread
  • Butter
  • Pickled onions (or some other pickle)
  • Washed down with a fine pint

Where and when does this oldy-worldy sounding meal that evokes a time of simpler country living and hard physical labour come from? And, perhaps more importantly, what does a real Ploughman’s Lunch consist of?

Let’s look at the when first. It is such a beautiful piece of deception that an entire nation fell for it. Sir Richard Trehane (who died in late 2001) was chairman of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) from 1958 to 1977, after post-war rationing had come to a full end and we weren’t eating as much cheese as the MMB would have us eat. Sir Trehane wrote: “English cheese and beer have for centuries formed a perfect combination enjoyed as the Ploughman’s Lunch” (in the prface to The Cheese Handbook, by BH Axler, 1969). The phrase itself has been found earlier: JG Lockhart in The Life of Sir Walter Scott (published 1837–1839) describes how “the surprised poet swung forth to join them, with an extemporized sandwich, that looked like a ploughman’s luncheon in his hand’.

There is no doubt that such a meal has existed for centuries as only in recent times has the evening meal become the main meal of the day: It is difficult to imagine the ploughman returning home for a three-course meal at lunchtime before returning to his ploughing so he probably took with him some cheese, bread and pickles for his luncheon.

But the genius was in Sir Trehane’s romanticising the meal. We must remember that at the time only a few rural pubs had indoor toilets, let alone a kitchen with a cook, so the Ploughman’s Lunch was designed to include raw ingredients that could easily be stored in a cool cellar and put together quickly and easily by bar staff with little or no culinary training. However, the cleverest part of the deception was in the MMB’s (or more strictly, its little known arm, the English Country Cheese Council) designing of the dish, the inclusion of just ‘cheese’. This allowed each region of the country to use its own regional cheese: Caerphilly, Cheddar, Cheshire, Derby, Double Gloucester, Lancashire, Red Leicester, Stilton, Wensleydale. All were initially served with a chunk of bread and a dollop of chutney for extra kick.

However, the cheeses used were never those from the romantic image of the English countryside the MMB painted: they were little to do with real cheese, being efficiently produced in large, bright modern factories. Just as Kodak never actually sold or advertised film, they advertised memories, the MMB didn’t say ‘buy more cheese’, they simply sold it as a memory of a pre-war England washed down with traditional English Ale.

Now to the more interesting and fractious part of the deception. What on earth goes into a Ploughman’s?

When Keith A Faulkner researched his book The Definitive Ploughman’s Lunch (published 2006), he found that in Devon and Cornwall alone a Ploughman’s contained an average of thirteen (yep, 13!) separate ingredients:

  • Cheese
  • Bread
  • Beer
  • Pepper
  • Gherkins
  • Pickled cabbage
  • Lemon slices
  • Cucumber
  • Olives
  • Beetroot
  • Radishes
  • Sweetcorn
  • Scotch egg (!)

However, despite the variations in two counties alone let alone in the Reader’s own experiences there is one key point to be made: In a pub at least a good Ploughman’s is a true barometer of the pub’s other offerings. And, the fact that it is a very modern deceptively created menu item does not mean it is a bad thing. In its simplest form there is nothing better than a plate of tasty bread, home-made chutney or pickle and a good wedge of artisan cheese!

One last point: Never let anyone tell you what a Ploughman’s Lunch should or shouldn’t contain. As the one pictured illustrates, put in it what you have. At worst it may not be that memorable but taste wise it won’t let you down as long as you have good ingredients to begin with, at best you will have created something worthy any glossy food magazine. Just consider this, we haven’t even mentioned any ham!

Ingredients for the Ploughman’s that Andy photographed:

  • Pexommier cheese. A gorgeous soft and creamy cheese made by Carl Warburton using milk from his own herd of Holstein Friesian cows Pextenement Farm near Todmorden, West Yorkshire.
  • Venison salami with green peppers. Made by Anja and Jan Jacob Baak in Fort William using meat from surrounding managed estates.
  • Wild rocket from a Crystal Palace resident. It really does grow like a weed; if you find some by the road have yourself some, as you’ll never find better!
  • Simple crusty bread
  • Olives (Petit Lucque and Bella di Cerignola varieties) and large caperberries

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