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—but what exactly is it? Most certainly this meal is not for the salad-lover as it often contains cheese, meats, pickles, sometimes even a slice of meat pie as well as bread. Since there is some variation, always ask what's included before ordering.
Origin of a Ploughman's Lunch
A ploughman's lunch originated as a lunch packed to take out into the fields for—you guessed it—a ploughman (or plowman). Just where the name or the contents of a ploughman's lunch comes from has been lost over time, but there are suggestions that the name evolved in the 1960s due to the Cheese Bureau's attempt to increase the sale of cheese since it was no longer a rationed item after World War II. However, some believe that this meal was revived from one that was created more than a century earlier, as there are records of it mentioned in the 1837 book Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. (Although skeptics claim this could just be referring to lunch for the ploughman in general.) Considering bread, cheese, and pickles was a common lunch combination in Britain, it is easy to imagine the ploughman's lunch has a long history.
Contents of a Traditional Ploughman's Lunch
Although the items can vary, the contents of a ploughman's lunch are always cold, and generally includes crusty bread and cheese, plus pickled onions and chutney. The lunch may also contain a selection of cold meats, ham, maybe a slice of pate and a slice of pork pie, and sometimes slices of apple or other seasonal fruit. And since it is eaten at a pub, beer is the natural accompanying beverage.
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 will be cheeses of the region and at the very least British—the same goes for the meats and other accompaniments. The bread must be a thick wedge of crusty bread or a baguette—anything less will not hold up when piled high with cheese, chutney, and pickles.
The Modern Ploughman's Lunch
Traditional as a ploughman's lunch is, it has taken on a modern twist thanks to the rise of the gastro-pub in Britain. Gastro-pubs are those traditional pubs which 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, and terrines, as well as game and other "fancy" meat. 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 are to the surrounding area of the pub the better.