The origin of the ploughman’s lunch has been the source of much debate over the years. Some maintain that the informal gathering of bread, cheese and accompaniments - from the rustic to ridiculous - was developed as a marketing ploy. Others paint a picture of a rural idyll, complete with ruddy-cheeked farm worker carefully unwrapping a folded napkin to reveal a lapful of crusty loaf, apple and farmhouse Cheddar.
Whatever its humble beginnings, and whether you prefer the purist option or a more diverse range of ingredients on the plate, one thing’s for sure – the ploughman’s lunch is arguably the most enduring format for the simple enjoyment of a good cheese.
Clearly the key to the perfect ploughman’s is the finest ingredients. The British pub classic is at its traditional best when centred around a wedge of Cheddar. And of course, the most authentic is West Country Farmhouse.
Having placed a generous chunk (Ploughman’s are so rarely austere in this respect) of this most glorious of handmade British cheeses at the head of the plate, one must consider the items most suited to accompanying its unfolding flavours. Due to the farmhouse origins and handmade nature of a real PDO Cheddar, each has a different character. But whether you’ve picked a Brue Valley, a Westcombe or a Denhay (to name but three), there are several ingredients which deserve consideration.
First up, the perfect ploughman’s must include a decent chunk of good bread. You need a soft stage on which to build the drama of Cheddar and supporting characters. A ploughman’s offers a great opportunity to entertain the palate with a myriad of textures so the bread should be fresh and crusty. Perhaps nothing beats the cottage loaf. Its attractive curves invite you to tear rather than cut and the simple white dough delivers a slightly sweet and yeasty background to the strong savouriness of the Cheddar. Alternatively, the oaty tone of a granary bap or the nutty notes of a thick slice of wholemeal brings a woody element to proceedings.
Secondly, few would consider the ploughman’s complete without some source of twang. And here’s where we uncover a global divide – are you an onion or a chutney supporter? Or do you reside on the gluttonous fence and insist on both? Whatever your pickle politics, to make the most of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’s rich creaminess you do need a source of vegetal acidity. Pickled onions promise a very specific bite. A diminutive silver skin is low maintenance (just pop it in the mouth mid chew) and carries a delightful sweetness. Alternatively, the Pippin-sized variety, matured in malt vinegar since the crusades, makes an eye-twitching match for the robust pepperiness of a vintage farmhouse cheese. When it comes to the more convoluted chutney option, the choice is endless. Obviously the dark brown variety has become synonymous, and in some cases eponymous, with the ploughman’s lunch, but one of the joys of a pub lunch can be discovering the local WI or landlady’s own recipe. And the pleasure of mopping up the last smear of pickle with the last morsel of buttered bread and cheese is almost unbeatable….
…if it weren’t for the fundamental joy of the apple and cheese pairing at the heart of the ploughman’s. The fruit should really be local, and certainly British. There’s no excuse for using something which has flown half way round the world. It ought to be whole – a browning half of a Cox’s looks so tight-fisted. And it needs to be enjoyed in tandem with the Cheddar, the bread and the pickle. A crunch of apple will endlessly cleanse the palate for the rematch and brings another texture to the party to boot. Of course, apples aren’t the only fruit and a good tomato makes a fine addition to the plate. Avoiding the tasteless pulpy and speed-ripened species, go for a traditional golf ball-sized English tom with its almost plummy sweetness or a cheeky cherry variety which delivers the same charm as a silverskin onion and that wonderful pop as you bite down.
Of course ‘other ploughman’s are available’, to coin a phrase. Blackboards across the land announce the delights of ham, pork pie, Scotch egg and other pretenders. Each centrepiece brings new possibilities and challenges for matching and merging flavours. No wonder that, at a time when less needs to be moreish, the ploughman’s is a cause for celebration.
So what do you think? Where do you enjoy your favourite Ploughman’s? Send us your nomination and you’ll be entered into our Ploughman’s Prize Draw to win a hamper of goodies including several delicious wedges of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar.
And don’t forget to watch this space for details of the regional finalists and for a chance to win tickets to the Great British Cheese Festival.