-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

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the ploughman's lunch

I went into this pub, and I ate a ploughman's lunch. He was livid.

Tommy Cooper, comedian

a ploughman's lunch

a very modern and comprehensive ploughman's lunch with (clockwise from bottom) Cheddar cheese, Stilton cheese, spring onion, crusty bread, salad, pickled onions, Branston pickle & piccalilli, cherry tomatoes and apple wedges.

       What is a ploughman's lunch? At its simplest it comprises a thick wedge of crusty bread, a large chunk of cheese and a pickled onion. It became the quintessential English pub lunch in an age when many pubs didn't serve food at all.

Traditionally the cheese would have been the locally made but, from the 1960's, Cheddar cheese became the standard for most ploughman's lunches served in pubs. But, over the years, the ploughman's lunch has been gentrified. Not only can you have a Cheddar ploughman's but you can replace the Cheddar with Stilton or even non-English cheeses such as Brie or Camembert. You may find that the cheese has been done away with altogether and replaced with ham or even Italian salami. The pickled onion is often replaced with Branston pickle (a bit easier on the modern palate) or some other less piquant chutney or relish. Salad leaves and tomatoes are added to give a healthy aspect to the plate.

But is it authentic? There's not much doubt that a meal of rustic bread and and chunk of cheese is traditional English peasant food but whether it was commonly known as a 'ploughman's lunch' rather than just 'bread and cheese' is very much open to question.

Laura Mason & Catherine Brown in Traditional Foods of Britain state that "Since the 1960s pickled onions are often served with bread, cheese and salad under the name 'ploughman's lunch'. There is no evidence that such a combination was commonly eaten by ploughmen in the past or that ploughmen ate lunch in the modern sense of the word".

In the television program Balderdash & Piffle the BBC and the Oxford English Dictionary combined forces to try and discover the roots of certain English words. When they looked at 'ploughman's lunch' they found a source going back to 1837 but it is inconclusive. The earliest hard evidence is from 1958 which says "In a certain inn to-day you have only to say, 'Ploughboy's Lunch, please,' and for a shilling there is bread and cheese and pickled onions to go with your pint".

So this is the joker in the pack.

'Ploughman's Lunch' as we understand it today is actually a term promoted by the trade organisations English Cheese and the Milk Marketing Board in 1960 as part of an advertising campaign to boost the amount of cheese being sold in pub lunches. Of course, that doesn't make the meal a fake although the chances of a 19th century ploughman recognising an plate of Brie, factory made bread, salad leaves and a sweet chutney as his lunch are pretty slim.