The ploughman’s lunch, shown above, has been around for hundreds of years in England. It typically consists of crusty bread and a couple of hunks of cheese and a variety of items may or may not be added : pickles, chutneys, pies, salad, sliced meat, hard-boiled eggs or even an apple or grapes. It is often presented on a wooden platter, as in the photo above.
Probably no two ploughman’s lunches are ever quite exactly the same. And of course, it needs to be washed down with an ice-cold beer or cider.
Bread, cheese and beer have existed in England since its beginning, and the phrase “a ploughman’s lunch” was first recorded around the end of the 14th century in a medieval poem called Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. It is not difficult to imagine that these three items would be easy to pack for a farm labourer who needed an economical but hearty packed lunch after a morning working in the fields. Cheese was a good source of protein in this midday sustenance.
This type of cold, easily prepared meal has also been on offer in inns or other establishments for centuries. At times it may have been all they had to offer, especially throughout rationing at the time of the second world war, and afterwards. But it remained a popular combination.
Ploughman’s lunch hits the big time
There is some argument over whether “a ploughman’s lunch” always referred to the bread and cheese combo, or if it meant whatever the ploughman had in his lunch box for his midday meal that particular day.
But by the 1950’s it definitely had the meaning of the meal pictured above. The Cheese Board began promoting the sale of cheese when rationing ended and in the 60’s and 70’s the Milk Marketing Board began a campaign to promote the ploughman’s lunch itself. It was also a dream for caterers as the ingredients were flexible and the meal was so easy and quick to prepare. So understandably, it was always on the menu for the pubgrub of this period, and maybe brought with it the nostalgia of a less complicated, rural England.
Nowadays chefs and gastropubs have added their own twists to the ploughman – and it has become a lunch that can stand up to most occasions. Scotch eggs, olives, paté, fancy meats and even fish can all adorn a contemporary ploughman’s lunch – but the cheese, unlike the substantial slices of bread, remains a staple ingredient, whatever variety it may be.
A relatively simple, timeless dish. Arrange the foodstuffs of your choice on a plate or platter or in a tray or a bowl. And off you go. Bon appetit!