The perfect Ploughman’s Lunch

ploughman's lunch with bread, sausage, stilton, salad, pickled onion, etc, served with a pint of bitter on a white place
A very acceptable ploughman’s lunch,
served in the ancient town of Lewes.

Life in Canada is, generally speaking, wonderful when compared with life in the UK but, as well as the loved ones I miss, there are a few everyday things that I yearn for from the old country, most often connected with food or drink. I am reminded on this sunny day in late August of the meal that I miss most: the Ploughman’s Lunch. I almost wrote ‘the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch’ but Ploughman’s Lunches are not really traditional, though they are loosely based on what rural workers ate and drank for centuries. The term and the dish were invented by a cheese marketing board in the late 1950s, and enthusiastically promoted for sale in pubs – usually with a glass of ale or cider – as a more substantial and satisfying alternative to traditional pies and sandwiches, but just as easy for inexpert pub staff with no proper kitchen to prepare. They have been almost ubiquitous in English pubs for my entire life. I know of a handful of pubs in Greater Metro Vancouver that purport to serve them but, without exception, even when they do other British dishes like bangers and mash, toad in the hole, Shepherd’s Pie, and so on well, they are not even close to the real thing and are almost guaranteed to disappoint. A couple of ‘British’ pubs in Victoria get pretty close, with something you might find in a mediocre chain pub in the UK, but none do it right.

So here, in case any pub owners in Vancouver or the surrounding area ever get to read it, is how you do it right…

Two or three really thickly cut slices or wedges of crusty bread (but not the sort of crust that will break your teeth). Not toast (though very light toasting may be OK if the bread is not completely fresh), not thin-sliced bread, no fancy flavours or additions, definitely not wraps or flatbreads. The perfect bread is an English cottage loaf or similar, wholemeal or otherwise. Sourdough is acceptable, a baguette works if it is really fresh, or a country loaf inspired by French, Italian, or similar traditions can substitute well. A nice roll – ciabatta or similar – may do at a pinch (that is what is in the image above, and it was quite pleasant). Not optional.

A small tub of soft (but not too soft) cultured butter (never margarine, never uncultured butter – almost all butter served in the UK is cultured, but it is not the default here in Canada). A handful of foil packets of Anchor butter or similar are acceptable and commonplace (see image above). Not optional.

A substantial wedge of sharp, well-aged Cheddar or similar hard cheese. Shouldn’t be the shrink-wrapped supermarket variety unless you cannot find anything better. Stilton is a good alternative/addition (as in the image above). Not optional.

A wedge or two of Melton Mowbray pork pie (the best) or other meat product such as the sausage in the image above. Optional.

A generous, thick-cut slice or two of slightly chewy baked ham. Never, ever, ever, substitute the pasty gelatinous mechanically recovered slices that come in plastic boxes at your local supermarket, or turkey slices (though a good chunk of smoked turkey from a delicatessen works well), or thin-sliced charcuterie meats, pastrami, salami, etc. Optional.

A dob of intensely hot Coleman’s English mustard or similar. Only needed (in tiny quantities) if you are having the ham, pork pie, sausage, etc. Don’t substitute Dijon, German, grainy, or other mild, vinegary alternatives unless you really can’t stand the intensity of proper English mustard.

A pickled onion or two. Not optional. I prefer strong pickled onions but medium strength will do. Do not substitute cocktail onions, or mild pickled onions, and especially do not even consider substituting dill pickles or gherkins. How could you even think of such a thing? I’m looking at you, Vancouver pubs.

Plenty of proper, dark brown, crunchy, chunky, richly flavoured Branston pickle (not the weird light-brown goop that tends to be sold in many Canadian stores – many supermarkets now stock the real thing, made by Crosse & Blackwell, usually in the British part of the ‘ethnic food’ section). Heinz, Waitrose, or Marks & Spencer Ploughman’s pickle will do at a pinch. Not optional. Do not substitute chutney or other sweet goo, especially if flavoured with cinnamon or other strong, fragrant spices. A really good, sharp, crunchy mango chutney, though, with a not-too-sweet sauce might be OK if you really hate Branston.

Some good, sharp, bright, chunky, crunchy piccalilli. Optional (good if you are having the ham or pork pie).

A fairly plain, leafy salad with lettuce, tomatoes, some red or other mild onion, maybe some cucumber, perhaps a sprig or two of parsley as a garnish. Go light on the dressing, if you use any at all. Mayonnaise may be provided on the side. Not optional. Do not substitute coleslaw, exotic leaves, potato salad, caesar salad, etc. Keep it simple, keep the ingredients distinct.

A few other ingredients may be added or, sometimes, substituted to taste, such as a Scotch egg, a gherkin or two, perhaps some coleslaw, maybe a British banger or similar sausage, maybe a boiled or pickled egg, possibly some black pudding or liver sausage/pate, perhaps a bit of game pie instead of pork pie; certainly an alternative or additional hard or semi-hard cheese or two (Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Gloucester, etc); perhaps a slice or two of thickly cut cold roast beef (horseradish optional, otherwise mustard) or cold roast lamb (with mustard or mint sauce), or maybe a chicken or turkey drumstick (lovely with Branston) instead of ham; perhaps a chutney (as well as, not instead of, Branston), maybe some pickled beetroot, perhaps some watercress, radish, cress, celery, etc in the salad.

Never serve any ingredients hot, though the bread can benefit from being a little warm.

Don’t overdo it. The best Ploughmans tend to keep things fairly simple, with two or three main proteins, in chunks or wedges or thick slices, good bread, a simple salad, pickled onion, and Branston or Ploughman’s Pickle, with only a smattering of signature embellishments to complement the main centrepieces.

Absolutely essential, and not optional, it must be paired with the right drink…

The perfect accompaniment is real English bitter, pulled from a barrel (cask), never from a keg, bottle, or can, served at cellar temperature (not warm, not room temperature, certainly not cold, just a little cool), with the lightest ring of froth, not completely flat but with no visible bubbles (the texture of velvet), and no more than 4% alcohol. A mild or IPA will do just as well, though remember that, in England, a really strong IPA is around 4.5%. You could substitute Guinness or similar stout if you wish. If that’s not possible, a cask-style nitro can (Kilkenny is the most common brand sold here) is better than nothing, though not ideal. Avoid anything with bubbles. If you don’t like beer, scrumpy (the real stuff, never fizzy, always cloudy, always dry), or a proper French cider or similar will do. Beware the alcohol content of real scrumpy, if you can find it here: you can drink it as easily as orange juice, and it hardly tastes alcoholic at all, but it will flatten you faster than hard liquor. Red wine is acceptable. If you don’t want alcohol, a glass of real lemonade is not a bad substitute, or perhaps a jug of water with a slice of cucumber or mint, or maybe a lime juice cordial or lemon barley water. Avoid anything sweet or fizzy or very strongly flavoured, unless you are sure the flavour will complement the dish (red wine is normally good because it cuts through the fatty, protein rich ingredients, much like the pickle components of the meal).

Serve it on a large, plain, white china plate, with a knife, fork, and cloth napkin. Use a wooden platter if you must, but only if you are a stockbroker, social media influencer or advertising executive. Do not use slate, stone, or fancy porcelain.

Assemble and eat the ingredients in any order or combination you like. Experiment with different combinations. Use your fingers for most of it (including pickled onions, chunks of cheese, pie, meat, sausage, etc as well as the bread). Expect things to get messy. You’ll probably need that cloth napkin.

Eat it in a leafy grassy pub garden on a lazy sunny, but not too hot, day, if possible surrounded by trees, hedges, or a crumbling brick wall. A babbling brook helps. If possible, sit at an untreated wooden bench. Beware of sparrows. In times of covid, eating inside is inadvisable anyway but, if you must, find a sheltered nook.

Do not, under any circumstances, add TV screens, piped music, or music to dance to. A little live light jazz, folk, or classical music is acceptable if you can still hear the bees buzzing in the garden. If you can add the very lightest hint of cigarette and/or cigar smoke in the air, that’s a plus.

Do not expect to tip your server, do not expect your server to ask if you are still working on it, do not expect your server to clear away your plate while you are still chewing. In fact, do not necessarily expect a server at all: you might have to order and pick it up from the bar, along with your beer. This is fine.

Add perfect company, relax, and enjoy. If you finish it before you’ve had time to order a second pint then you are eating too fast, drinking too slow, or there’s something wrong with the portion size. Take your time. This is a meal to be savoured, not devoured.