Go to almost any British pub for a taste of traditional food and you are more than likely to see a ploughman's lunch on the menu. Though served cold, this meal is not for the salad-lover: It's built on cheese, pickles, sliced meats or sometimes a slice of meat pie, and bread with butter.
In its original incarnation, a ploughman's lunch likely functioned as a portable meal packed for a ploughman (or plowman) to take into the fields. There are records of a "ploughman's lunch" mentioned in the 1837 book Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. Skeptics of the theory that this validates the humble origins of the meal argue that the reference could be simply to lunch for a ploughman in general without any specific ingredients; all ploughmen eat something for lunch, after all.
But considering that bread, cheese, and pickles were a common lunch combination in Britain, it is easy to imagine that the ploughman's lunch has a long history. The popularity of the modern ploughman's lunch grew in the 1960s when a national ad campaign featured it in an attempt to boost cheese sales following the end of rationing after World War II.
Elements of a Traditional Ploughman's Lunch
Although the specific items can vary, a ploughman's lunch is always served cold, and generally includes crusty bread and cheese, plus pickled onions and a relish or chutney. The lunch may also include a selection of cold meats, ham, maybe a slice of pate or a slice of pork pie, hard-boiled eggs, and sometimes slices of apple or other seasonal fruit. And since it's usually eaten at a pub, beer generally accompanies it.
Traditionally the cheese, bread, and pickles would be homemade by the ploughman's wife, making it a cheap and substantial lunch. Today, a good ploughman's lunch includes cheeses of the region or at the very least, the country; the same goes for the meats and other accompaniments. The bread must be a thick wedge of crusty bread or a baguette—anything less doesn't hold up when piled high with cheese, chutney, and pickles.
The Modern Ploughman's Lunch
Traditional as a ploughman's lunch may be, the concept has taken on a modern twist thanks to the rise of the gastro-pub in Britain. Gastro-pubs are those traditional pubs that have placed the emphasis more on the food than on the drink and sociability. Many gastro-pubs are now run by chefs rather than the traditional pub landlord.
Naturally, they have taken the classic ploughman's and dressed it up with Scotch eggs, pates, terrines, and tapenade, as well as game and other "fancy" meats. Bread is more often a sourdough or artisan variety rather than a simple baguette.
The emphasis on these platters has become the provenance of the ingredients—the more local the ingredients to the surrounding area of the pub, the better.