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.