British food: the ploughman’s lunch

Never say that I dodge the tough issues here. Chris White wrote in a comment that she couldn’t get a ploughman’s lunch in Scotland, and Laura, who blogs as A PIct in PA, wrote back, “I am a Scot from Scotland and have eaten many a ploughman’s lunch. I wonder why you are being denied this small but significant pleasure in life.”

What’s going on here? As it turns out, I can’t answer the question, but just so you don’t think I’m dodging it, I can tell you some interesting stuff about the ploughman’s lunch.

Irrelevant photo #1: This is what Fast Eddie usually looks like.

Irrelevant photo #2: This is what Fast Eddie looks like when he has an appointment with the vet. So the question is, how does he know?

The ploughman’s lunch—or just the ploughman’s if you’re short on time—consists of cheese, bread, butter, chutney, a pickled onion, and some random bits of green stuff. The cheese and bread should be large and chunky, or so sayeth the experts—and one expert sayeth that it should have ham as well. Another expert argues that you should make it out of whatever you have on hand, which sounds to me like a great recipe.

Now on to the interesting stuff: The ploughman’s isn’t a time-honored dish from Olde England. It was invented in the 1960s by the Milk Marketing Board, which was trying to promote the sale of cheese, especially in pubs. It will be referred to later, in a quote, as the MMB, so burn that into your memory or we’ll lose you and I hate when that happens.

But we can trace the story back a little further than the sixties. In 1956, the monthly bulletin of the Brewers Society reported that the Cheese Bureau “exists for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and, as a corollary, the public house lunch of bread, beer, cheese and pickle. This traditional combination was broken by rationing; the Cheese Bureau hopes, by demonstrating the natural affinity of the two parties, to effect a remarriage.”

Two parties? They named four. That might have made a remarriage difficult, but no, they’re still together, although the pickle walked out and was replaced by chutney. I guess they figured three was an unstable number.

The pickled onion loyally marks the place where the pickle used to be.

In Britain, Pickle (with no S, just the singular pickle) is pretty much anything preserved in vinegar or brine as long as it’s chopped up so you can spread it on bread. Chutney is–as far as I can figure out–a pickle but it doesn’t seem to be called pickle. Are you still with me? Because I’m not sure I am. When a sandwich is listed as cheese and pickle, that means it has some gluey, pickly dark stuff on it–something that isn’t chutney.

Just for the record, I don’t like either of them.

But let’s stop gossiping about other people’s relationships. The point is that the combination was traditional. The new elements were the name and the spin. A website called Good Taste writes,

“The genius was in Sir Trehane’s romanticising the meal [Trehane was the Milk Marketing Board’s chair]. 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.”

So rationing was central to all of this, If you’re not from Britain, you may not know that rationing continued well past the end of World War II. The country came out of the war nearly broke, with damn little to export and no money to import food. The story’s complicated and involves not just Britain but also American politics, and it’s worth a post of its own if I can thread my way through the various elements that go into an explanation. I’d welcome any comments but I’ll leave the topic alone for now rather than get it wrong or oversimplify it.

So let’s go back to the ploughman’s lunch. The Ploughman’s Plot was successful enough that these days the lunch is on menus everywhere (at least in England and Cornwall–I can’t swear to its presence in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) and you can find posts on how to make one. I even found an article on how to eat one. My advice is to use your mouth, but that’s probably why no one’s hired me to write about food. I run out of words too quickly. The author talks authoritatively about whether it’s better to serve one on a slate or a wooden board. I’ve mostly seen them on plates, but maybe I’m not hanging out in the right places.

If you really need more detail on how to eat a ploughman’s, though, here’s what I can tell you: I generally take the chutney and move it off the plate, where I can pretend I don’t see it. Next I eye the pickled onion warily and move it as far away from the real food as possible. I’d put it on the table but pickled onions are damp and they’re messy, so I don’t feel free to do that in a public place.

Then I eat what’s left, which is basically a cheese sandwich that you get to play with.

A quick online check for “ploughman’s lunch Scotland” (this is, you’ll remember, where we started) brought up a few of places where they’re on the menu, but a lot of the links defaulted to England. That may mean the ploughman’s not as widespread in Scotland or it may mean I didn’t put in the word combination that would unlock the information I wanted. The Good Taste quote makes it sound like it was an English creation, so it may well have run up against Scottish nationalism, in which case–sorry, Laura–it’s doomed.

What I can tell you with certainty is that, unless it’s on a menu and the menu capitalizes all the dishes, there isn’t a reason in hell to capitalize ploughman’s lunch the Good Taste does–along with a shitload of other stuff that should be lower case. Because once the dish wanders off the menu and into what passes for the real world, it needs to surrender its caps. The world will be a safer place that way.

82 thoughts on “British food: the ploughman’s lunch

  1. Another Scot here. I had plenty of Ploughmans (Ploughmen? Oops, capitalised it) when living there in days of yore. Not sure why Chris (I think he’s a he) can’t get one. I love the pickle. Can’t get it here in the anti-Ploughman land of the French. Probably for pronounciation reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As long as they’re interesting or make me laugh, I promise I won’t insist on comments being relevant. Thanks for the link. It’s interesting–and a bit unsettling–to see them promoting film by trying to convince people it’s as good as a glass plate negative. Holy shit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have thought about the lack of ploughmen in Scotland. It strikes me that there is very little in the way of ploughable land up there (Scotland is ‘up there’ for the majority of UK residents), being either a/ frozen or b/ the side of a mountain. Maybe this is why there are no ploughmen traditionally having their lunch there to hang a marketing effort on.
        I did look up Scottish cheeses, expecting them to have none to promote in the first place, apparently though there are a few so my thoughts also turn to it famously being a problem to find any vegetables in Scotland locally to pickle for the pickle.

        I think I have now used as many negative Scottish stereoptypes as I dare.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I had no idea that the Ploughman (should that be ‘Ploughperson’?) was a marketing product. I have been fooled into imagining some kind of bucolic idyll, with rosy-cheeked contended peasants tucking into tasty picnics after a gentle workout in the pasture. The approach you describe sounds very like ‘selling the sizzle, not the steak’ – I also had no idea the MMB was so clever. But I do remember they had a special handshake. Plates or boards? Don’t get me started. What’s wrong with plates? I had a meal served on a piece of slate at one pub – pah! It’s like being asked if you want your beer in a glass. I will consult my Scottish connections. Actually, I imagine a dollop of haggis would go very well with the cheese and pickle (or chutney).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t seen much of the plughman’s lunch here in Australia. I think our equivalent would be a ham and cheese sandwich/toastie with tomato. I don’t mind eating pickles on their own but don’t like them with sandwiches. Nut a huge fan of chutney, especially the tomato kind. I’m assuming some ploughman’s lunches are better with the better quality cheeses. I like the soft kind of cheeses where you can spread out – I find it gives my food much more flavour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on the chutney–I’ve never learned to like the stuff and these days I can’t see why I should try. I have become a big fan of blue cheese, though. And cheddar.


      • Generally I don’t like my sauces cold. And all chutney I’ve had have been served cold. Coupled with the tanginess of it…just not my palate. I’m with you on cheese. Can’t get enough of it and love it with my bread in the morning.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. >The author talks authoritatively about whether it’s better to serve one [a ploughman’s lunch] on a slate or a wooden board.

    In Shoreditch and other trendy parts of London peopled by Hipsters and Artisan types, you’re likely to get your ploughman’s lunch, or anything else edible for that matter, served on a shovel, a manhole cover or a petri dish. Maybe even in a washing up bowl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmmm. Do the health and safety experts have anything to say about that? For that matter, do the dishwashers? I’m glad I’m not loading a dishwasher full of shovels. Or manhole covers.


  5. Pickled anything and pickles and chutney are the devils work!

    Ploughman’s lunches are not really for me as I end up discarding 80% or what is on the plate…
    I like bread and cheese just fine and the ham if it is a ham ploughman’s but if they have got pickle/chuteny contamination on them I have to cut that bit off too. I generally give it up and have ham, egg and chips…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You probably can’t order “The Ploughman” in French because there aren’t enough extraneous unpronounced letters in the word. Just my personal experience with the French language. Sorry.

    So – “chutney” is basically RELISH ? Sweet or dill ? Wow. That explains a lot.

    Only slightly irrelevant reference :short story “The Two Bottles of Relish” – I don’t remember the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Only French (to my very limited knowledge) can beat English in the unpronounced and basically useless letters sweepstakes.

      I googled a few random chutney recipes and they all seem to involve a fruit or vegetable, sugar, vinegar, and some spices–cinnamon, bay leaf, ginger, that sort of thing. Mix them all together and you come up with one of those things you either love or hate. Then you spread it on a sandwich.


  7. Once more England has become a bit less idealized for me with this post. Invented in 1960, rather than having any historical value of past lives among the long-suffering, hard-working farmers of yesteryear– well I just say Humph! to that. (note the capitalization and the exclamation there please)
    Actually the thing that has me more concerned is the idea of butter on a cheese sandwich. Give me the thick chewy bread with butter and I’m all in, but tell me that I’m then supposed to slap a perfectly good hunk of cheese on that and be happy- no, won’t do it. Too many memories of childhood and Wonderbread white sandwiches (of all combinations and types, made by my mother) that always involved buttering the bread before placing the actual contents between the slices.
    Sorry, must go now. I believe the retching is about to start…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Okay, if you feel that strongly about it, I won’t argue. Especially since you mention Wonderbread (builds healthy bodies six ways; was it six? or eight?.

      Sorry to deromanticize the place. The truth is, the combination’s old. Well, except for the chutney, which is fairly recent. It’s just the name…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh, makes more sense when you think about the fact that bread and cheese have been around for some time and would make for a most popular combo. Guess I missed that part about it being the name as newer concept rather than the entire idea. My two take away memories from wonder bread: the colored dots on the package, and the fact that you could roll that bread into the smallest ball ever and then launch it at fellow muncher’s sitting 6 or 7 desks away from you :)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The editor in you seems to be on a crusade against those unnecessary Capitals. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. “bread, beer, cheese and pickle” or a pickled onion sounds pretty good to me. I have always avoided chutney, or is that Chutney, but now that I know it’s kinda pickle, I might give it a try. Here in the US, we are still in the midst of a multi-year marketing campaign by the gov designed to get us to use more cheese. The fast-food pizza places are all offering some flavor of “stuffed-crust-pizza” which was created because they were given a very good deal on cheese that was being stored in some Midwest (sorry, spell check said to capitalize it) location, maybe the apartment you abandoned when you escaped to England.

    Fast Eddie can read the calendar, checks your phone and scans the notepads for the word VET. He’s no dummie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fast Eddie may have a second job working for the NSA. Or G–oh, hell, what’s the British equivalent called? My head’s stuffed too full of acronyms that start with G. Anyway, You’ve got to keep your eye on those cats. They know all and there’s no telling who they’ll sell the information to.

      But in case I can fool him, next time I’ll write the appointment in as the vegetarian.

      I always wondered why someone started that stuffed crust pizza business. I figured it was just that they needed to come up with something new.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Cats have their own secret calender which tells them when it is vet time–usually close by their birthdays or gotcha days! Ploughmans lunch: Yes to the cheese sandwich, no the pickled onion and chutney. But I am not supposed to eat cheese or bread either, so what am I left with? The pickle! Waiter, I will have the Ploughman’s Pickle! Having lived in England myself in the 80’s, maybe I should not really ask for that in that manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Ellen,
    I’ve very rarely on;y had a Ploughman’s Lunch in England, for the sole reason that the bread usually is way too chunky for me. I don’t want to open my mouth that wide. For the same reason I avoid double or even triple burgers here in the US, and usually eat the half od the bun on top of a burger first.
    Have a great weekend,

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yay! I love that you researched this and wrote about it just because of an exchange of comments. I guess I have been very lucky indeed to find those few weird pockets of Ploughman’s lunch munching available in Scotland. And I am also wondering if it may have something to do with the fact that my Dad is a cheese addict – he probably sought out the right places to take us to. I have never been a fan of traditional pickle (or pickles of the gherkin kind actually) so I used to either leave that bit of the plate be or I would donate it to my pickle-loving sister. I do, however, love chutney (and I think the difference between pickle and chutney might be to do with sugar content) so am heartened that it has edged out pickle in the Ploughman’s Lunch. Last time I had a Ploughman’s (other than that made at home by me) was in Argyll and I was horrified when it was presented to me with beetroot on the plate (as in pickled beets). The only vegetable I will not eat at all, ever, is beetroot. It is my food nemesis. I don’t eat red meat but I would probably eat a steak before I would eat beetroot. And, of course, beetroot is not a thing one can scrape to the edge of the plate and escape. Beetroot leaks everywhere and infects everything. I had to abandon the entire meal because of that “twist” on the Ploughman’s tradition. I believe my cheese addict father might have volunteered to eat it.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Here, no need to cook beetroot. You can buy them pre-cooked and vacuum-packed in the supermarché, all nice and ready to be cubed, mixed with raw garlic, parsley and vinaigrette and consumed as a ‘crudité’ starter. A bit harsh on the breath but yummy! And not a dead cow in sight. God, I’m becoming such a Frenchie.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I feel so cheap! To have fallen for the ruse! I can recall vividly (and I’m not making this up) the moment I read about the PM’s L. I thought it was brilliant and quaint and perfect for picnics. But a marketing scheme?

    I feel so cheap.

    Hope Eddie’s OK and the visit is just routine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Important stuff first: Eddie’s fine, thanks. He was due for his shots. That was a week or two back and trust has been reestablished, although he still insists on an extra treat at night to make up for the insult and the trauma.

      I should never have taught that cat to talk.

      I wouldn’t think you should blame yourself for being taken in on the ploughman’s. You were fooled by experts and have lots of company.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. My grandfather`s farmworkers, if out of range of the farm at lunchtime, were supplied with barley bannocks filled with fat bacon – the fat supplying the lubrication required to swallow the bannock. Cold tea in a stoneware jar accompanied this.
    I wonder if any hípster shyster would like try serving this combination to his credulous customers…….ah yes, I see the way. Iberica fat bacon, organic stone ground (in a watermill) flour for the bannock….but the tea still evades me.

    I would defy anyone to make a ploughman`s from the cheese known as Suffolk Bang: reputed to be so hard that dogs barked at it. The only way to access it was to place it by a roaring fire and scrape off the edges as they reluctantly melted.

    Pickles are fruit and veg preserved with vinegar and spices…chutneys require the addition of sugar. I like and make both.

    Lettuce in a ploughman`s? Heresy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I came to the line about the dogs barking at Suffolk bank, I laughed loud enough to bring my partner running from the other end of the house to find out what had happened.

      We could manage to cold tea by looking to the iced tea they drink in the southern tier of U.S. states. You sweeten the hell out of it and add lemon. Basically, you’re drinking tea-flavored lemonade. If we’re going to make it look upscale, customers will pour it from that stoneware jug into elegant glasses graced with a sprig of mint.

      I’ll stop there. I’ve really annoyed myself with that.


  14. I love a good ploughman’s and it does have some basis in history. Medieval peasants used to traipse off to the fields with hunks of bread for their lunch. If they had hard cheese, that would go as well. Obviously, the salad, pickle and etc. all came much later.

    As to the question of slate or board, plate is the correct answer – always.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. How interesting.
    I seem to enjoy chutneys. And so far, I like everything pickled except ginger. Personally, I love to eat such things as a ploughman’s lunch, although I don’t suppose we call it anything here. I feel like I’ve seen that on a menu a time or two, though I probably went for fish n’ chips, corn beef and slaw on rye, or Scotch eggs…
    But yes, bit of bread, whether butter or jam, some cheese, some nuts, olives, a pickle, slices of egg, fruit… plates of things I call them. I often just want plates of things. This doesn’t go well with my family, who always want to eat ‘meals’ three times a day. *shrugs*

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks for a lovely look at a slice of British history and more insight into marketing. I had not heard of the ploughman’s lunch, but now I know I should never order one if I see it on the menu. My diet doesn’t allow any of it. And I don’t like chutney or anything pickled, either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to have saved you the disappointment, then. I actually like them, but I don’t eat so many of the pieces–the chutney, the pickled onion–that it seems absurd to order one just for the privilege of playing with my cheese sandwich.


  17. Boo! I just found you – and I’m glad I did.

    The ploughman’s-parent was Sir Richard Trehane – that makes him Sir Richard, and not – as Good Taste has it – Sir Trehane. You knows this, though.

    Never been to Cornwall. Must come down when I run out of tin, or when the urge to stick it to a piskie becomes overwhelming.

    Have an unusual day. (<-Viv Stanshall) (“)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Piskies have become vanishingly rare around here, and a lot of those who are left are calling themselves pixies in an effort to blend in. These are difficult times we live in. I hadn’t noticed Good Taste’s mistake–it’s a good thing I’m retired, because I worked as an editor/copy editor/occasional proofreader, so my professional pride (or what’s left of it) is dented.

      Most of my days are unusual, thanks, but then I guess that makes them usual. Which is, I admit, confusing. But I appreciate the wish anyway, which I’ll choose to interpret as a good wish and wish it back at you.


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