I do love a good urban myth / old wives tale. Be it how Chicken Tikka Massala was invented, or that dock leaves cure nettle stings….. but one of my favourite culinary ones is the Ploughman’s Lunch. There are some historic references to “a lunch for a ploughman” consisting of ale, bread and cheese as far back as 1394, but alas, the traditional pub lunch you know today was a sleight of hand on what you would imagine an idyllic farmer eating, lovingly packed by the matriarchal farmer’s wife figure and eaten on a hillside with sweeping views across the dales……. created by none other than the Milk Marketing Board to promote cheese when it ceased to be rationed in the 1950s. There is almost certainly an element of truth in its origin; not least because ale provided nourishment in itself and was more sterile than water due to the brewing process so it is likely that a flaggon of beer may have been carried by a farmer in days of yore. Cheese and bread are well known staples and pickling is an ancient way of preserving foods in a time of abundance which means our figurative farmer could well have had some with his bread and cheese. Lettuce, apples, onions and cucumber were certainly around in Europe in 1394, but tomatoes are a Southern American import so probably would not have graced his lunchbox. Cured meats may have augmented it for a more luxurious variety. In any event, the ploughman’s lunch can be very hit and miss when you’re out and about. Sometimes its a poor imitation of a cheeseboard with some limp salad garnishing it, sometimes it’s a veritable feast fit for a king. However, a decent ploughman’s should merely tick these boxes;
- Crusty bread. It has to be crusty and it should preferably be granary to match the farmhouse imagery you would expect, and come in great hunks or large rolls.
- Hard cheese – preferably an abundance of an English classic such as Stilton or Cheddar – remember that you’re looking for a decadent portion overall!.
- Homemade chutney / pickle – in a fair abundance
- Good quality butter.
- An apple.
- An accompanying salad – done well – lightly dressed sweet onions, lettuce and cucumber should do it.
- Optional extras include pickled shallots and a decent homemade pork pie.
Those last two points start to depart from what I would argue the tradition invented by the Milk Marketing Board had envisaged, but round it off nicely into a good hearty lunch. My favourite pub ploughman’s can be found in the Lamb and Flag in Oxford – a 500 year old, traditional style pub with great ales too – it’s cash only though, but very good value.