• Simon Mckenzie

Another British Classic – The Ploughmans

As I mentioned on my previous blog, I recently took a couple of days out and went to Cheddar Gorge. At dinner we sampled the local restaurant scene in Wells where we were staying, which was diverse I must say, however if you ever find yourself in the area you must give Ensemble a go. Reasonably priced and good cooking.

Anyway, that’s for another blog. Lunchtime was a simple bite and so we opted - hungry from caving and desperately craving cheese after seeing them all ripening – to give local village pubs a go, so off we trotted.

Browsing the generic rural British pub menu through sandwiches and of course fish and chips and the odd curry, a ploughmans caught our eye. Thinking great weather, outside with a pint of bitter shandy (driving of course), why not share one?

Well, I was amazed, it was big enough for 3 and could still bring some home for supper.

A HUGE slab of stilton, a HUGE slab of cheddar, some tomatoes, some salad, a wedge of orange (hmmmmm), pickles and chutneys, then there, nestled in a bed of lollo rosso, a glorious patch of pickled onions. On the side some good quality butter and enough bread to keep a London hotel in dainty finger sandwiches for a month.

The thing is with a ploughmans, as long as you buy half decent ingredients, you can’t go wrong can you?

Day 2 and another pub – same option spotted and ordered and there we go again, huge slab of cheddar, huge slab of stilton and this time another sole to the party – a huge wedge of Brie. Again, leaves and pickles and more glorious onions (thankfully no lost orange wedges this time).

On each occasion, sharing the ploughmans finished us off and was a great little buffet, sat nestling a pint (ok – it was shandy but still you get the picture), chatting and enjoying the British sun at it’s hottest, life was great and there wasn’t a care in the world. It was like Last of The Summer Wine just got pimped.

So, this got me thinking. What is the history of the Ploughmans? Who invented it and why? I remember ploughmans from my childhood but never ate one. It was the kinda food old people ate with disgusting wedges of pickled beetroot, and, being a child, I could never understand why fruit was an addition to a main meal? I guess it was lost on a Northerner in the 90’s.

I love these cookery antidotes and can real off many stories about the creation of omelette Arnold Benette and the Peach Melba, however I have no idea of the heritage of the Ploughmans.

So, some digging done and here we go – get ready for a chunk of history…

First reference is in 1394 in a poem called Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede where it mentions a traditional ploughman’s midday meal of bread, cheese and beer. The crede itself can be dated back to between 1393 and 1400 where it was printed in two manuscripts both referring to Piers Plowman, written by William Langland. Piers Ploughman is considered to be one of the greatest works of English Literature of the middle ages, proceeding and influencing the Canterbury Tales and making the first known reference to the character Robin Hood.

History tells us that in the 1870’s farmworkers in Devon were eating bread and hard cheese with cider as their midday meal. This diet was associated with rural poverty.

In 1837 the Oxford English Dictionary makes its first reference to a Ploughman’s Luncheon.

1932 the British writer Martin Armstrong wrote that “village inns serving nothing but cheese, bread and beer and nothing else was extraordinarily good, however the alternative being nothing, and compared with nothing cheese, beer and bread are beyond compare”.

In 1958 both the Glasgow newspaper and the Times refer to a Ploughman’s lunch consisting of bread, cheese and pickle.

It was the 1970’s where the dish made its name though and rose to popularity as the generation pushed aside new technology and modernity coming in to reconnect with a love-affair of the idealised nations past.

However, to throw a spanner in all that history we have just digested a screenplay written by Ian McEwan was turned into a film in 1983 called The Ploughman’s Lunch which has a subtext that is “the way countries and people re-write their own history to suit the needs of the present” The title is said to argue that the “traditional” meal was essentially a marketing tool invented to encourage people to eat meals in village pubs.

Whatever the true history is, and I really hope it is the latter – call me a romantic – it really is worth rediscovering.

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