It is hard to think of British pub cuisine without conjuring up an image of that quintessential staple, the Ploughman’s Lunch. It ranks up there with fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. While interpretations vary, the Ploughman’s Lunch typically consists of crusty white or brown bread, an assertive English cheddar or richly blue-veined Stilton, and pickled onions. Don’t be surprised if a few slices of apple, a hard-boiled egg, or some cured meats also show up on the board, depending on the locale or the inclination of the kitchen. The “lunch” is properly accompanied by a forthright English beer — a Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter, Newcastle Brown Ale, or Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter. Of course, American interpretations of these styles also work; Yards ESB, Full Sail Pale Ale, or Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter are all great beers that would be up to the task.
The Ploughman’s Lunch is a meal you might imagine a hungry farmer unwrapping from a sack for a midday respite during a hard day’s work in the fields. Well, not exactly. Don’t expect the words ploughman’s lunch to jump out at you the next time you are immersed in your favorite Thomas Hardy novel, or thumbing through the collected poems of Wordsworth. The term likely did not exist until the late 1950s or early ‘60s when the British Cheese Board launched a marketing campaign to boost the consumption of English cheese. In the Wikipedia article on the ploughman’s lunch, you’ll find much more information about the origins of the phrase than you will about the meal itself. On his blog Zythophile, beer journalist Martyn Cornell lays out a detailed account of the controversy and the likely evolution of the phrase. Cornell cites the June 1957 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a brewery industry publication, as the first known instance of the phrase. In the 1980s, in Thatcher-lead England, during the post Falkland war miasma, the Ploughman’s Lunch became synonymous with revisionist history, a culture trying to redeem its miserable present by reinventing the past.
In spite of its origins, the Ploughman’s Lunch endures. In fact, it thrives. Not only in pubs throughout the British Isles, but also in English inspired restaurants and taverns throughout the world. While the term Ploughman’s Lunch might have been born out of a calculated ploy to vend cheesy comestibles, the concept, sentimental or otherwise, of a portable midday meal for a hard working farmhand is sound enough. Certainly farmers would have carried their lunch into the fields, and that meal would have been simple, solid, and local. In rural England, that would include homemade bread and pickles, local cheese, and perhaps an ale of moderate strength, maybe a predecessor of a today’s milder ales, around 2-3 percent alcohol by volume.
And surely the popularity of the Ploughman’s Lunch that you order in the pub is not based solely on a manufactured tradition; you order it because it tastes so damn good! The appeal of the food relies largely on harmonies and contrasts — the crunchy, wet pickle against that firm hunk of sharp cheese atop a chewy slice of crusty bread. Now take a deep draw from that mug of bitter ale, allowing the carbonation of the beverage to cleanse your palate in preparation for the next bite. Let’s not forget the visual pleasures of the meal. A proper Ploughman’s Lunch is a well-composed board of various colors, shapes, and textures —yellow and white hillocks of cheese, glistening green stacks of pickles, shiny brown flecked pools of coarse, grainy mustard.
A Ploughman’s Lunch may be thought of as the ultimate deconstructed sandwich. Like any good deconstructed dish, it offers the opportunity for playful reinterpretation, and rewards the adventurous diner with new options for enjoyment. Let’s try a dab of strong mustard on this morsel of nutty cheese. How will a luscious slice of tart, pickled cucumber or onion harmonize (or contrast) with the earthy heal off a loaf of brown bread? Now the pickle first…on the cheese. The playful combinations are many if not endless.
With a rustic repast such as this, don’t even think of reaching for a glass of wine. Beer is the proper beverage to pair with this fare, and not only because it connects with tradition. In The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver’s seminal work on pairing beer with food, the author makes the controversial claim that beer, with its palate-cleansing properties and wider range of flavors, is the far better accompaniment to cheese. “The dirty little secret of the wine world,” he writes, “is that most wine…is a very poor match for cheese. Don’t believe me? Ask an honest sommelier.”
So what beer are we going to sit beside that gorgeous hunk of cheddar? When it comes to pairing beer with food, it is often best to let tradition and local cuisine guide you. Food and beer that have grown up together over thousands of years tend to play together nicely. Think of bready German fest beers and bratwurst. Think of Guinness stout and a platter of cold, briny Galway Bay oysters. This method is also our guide when selecting beer for our Ploughman’s Lunch. That hunk of Keen’s cheddar will get along perfectly with a Meantime IPA or other hop-forward ale, the floral and grassy notes from the English hops easily holding their own against the acidic sharpness of the cheese. Those spicy hops will also stand up nicely to a pungent, smooth, minerally Colston Bassett Stilton. Want to Americanize it? Try an assertive, slightly barnyardy slice of Birchrun Hill Farm’s Red Cat next to a glass of Victory Brewing Company’s enormously piney and citrusy Hop Devil IPA.
Don’t care for hoppy beers? Not a problem. The nutty characteristics of Samuel Smith’s aptly named Nut Brown Ale will marry well with the similar nuttiness of hard and semi-hard cheeses such as cheddars and tangy, crumbly Red Leicesters. Or you could contrast the hint of dried fruit in a pint of Theakston’s Traditional Mild against the savory background of a slice of Wensleydale. Roasted foods and cheese are also a natural pairing; the roasty finish of Porterhouse Brewing Company’s, strong, smooth, Wrasslers XXXX Stout will cozy up nicely to all that bold cheese and crackly, crusted bread.
Don’t let that dissuade you from bringing a Thomas Hardy’s Barley Wine or Belhaven’s Wee Heavy to the table. These are terrific beers that love to be paired with English cheeses. Just remember that these styles possess much higher alcohol content than stouts, browns and pale ales. It is a ploughman’s lunch, after all, and while you might not be hustling back to the horse and plow after your meal, you probably weren’t planning on taking an afternoon nap either.
When making your own Ploughman’s Lunch what you include is up to you. Since English cheese and English beer have been hanging out together for millennia it is hard to go wrong when selecting the right pairing for a Ploughman’s Lunch. But you don’t have to limit yourself to that particular geography. The Ploughman’s Lunch readily lends itself to interpretation. You can pair food and beer from different regions too. A good rule of thumb is to pair cheese and beer together with equal strength or personality. Mild fresh farmer’s cheese, a Port Salut, or even a Fontina would not fare well against an assertive Westmalle Tripel, for example; but place that beer next to a washed rind stinker like Époisses de Bourgogne, and you have a match made in heaven. Not only are they a good match in strength, the peppery sweetness of the ale is a terrific foil for the deep meatiness of the cheese. Want to insert a dimension of brightness? Drop a dollop of strawberry preserves on the board. Remember — harmonies and contrasts. Don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s a Ploughman’s Lunch – have some fun. •