There are some eating experiences which just make you wonder why you don’t have them more often. Often quoted in this respect are cornflakes – when was the last time you just had cornflakes… No red berries, no chocolate, sugar coating, puffed rice etc.? I always think a picnic falls into the same bracket. There is something nice about a hamper of goodies and just sitting in the open air to enjoy it. Most recently I added Ploughman’s lunch to the list.
Those outside the UK may not be familiar with the expression. Basically it is the English antipasti – a plate of cold ingredients which through bleary eyes you could imagine the weary ploughman eating after unwrapping his spotted handkerchief and mopping his brow. The horses patiently wait, scratching at the reddish soil with their hooves and there is only the sound of birdsong in the background…. Imagine my disappointment to read that the term Ploughmans Lunch was a 50s invention by the Cheese Marketing Board to sell more of their product rather than a centuries-old tradition!
The actual ingredients of a Ploughmans lunch are suitable flexible. The basics are the same – some cheese, some bread and some pickle. After that you can safely add some pork pie, apple, boiled egg, ham, pickled onion and even some salad. The joy of the Ploughman’s lunch though, is the opportunity to celebrate some great local food in its simplest format. A couple of weekends ago I had the urge for a Ploughmans and once the idea was in my head I couldn’t shake it. It started with a planned trip to our local baker – Crustum’s in Kenilworth. This is as small a bakery as you could wish to find. It is only open three days a week and the range is fairly limited. The bread, cakes and biscuits are made with love and are great quality. If I’m going to have a chunk (for that is the format in a Ploughmans – no slices here) then a chunk of Crustum’s bread will start me off very nicely indeed.
Despite the involvement of the Cheese Marketeers in inventing the name for the dish, we should be able to choose our own cheese component. Too often Cheddar is the English default but thankfully there are plenty of good English alternatives. I think it needs to be a hard cheese – a crumbly Wensleydale, Red Leicester, Sage Derby or Cheshire would do very nicely. I think the blue cheeses can dominate but a mature tangy cheese fits the bill perfectly – ideally made close to your home.
PIckle is a great opportunity to add your own home-made spoonful to the plate and that triumvirate of bread, cheese and pickle (no butter for me thanks) is at the heart of the dish. Get those ingredients right and you are well on the way. There is something satisfying about making jams, pickles and jellies. They are simple to make but pretty to look at and a great gift too.
It’s then up to you how to finish the Ploughman’s plate. Personally I think that pickled onions and pork pie are the bare minimum. Even here it should be as local and as homemade as possible. Pickled onions are, like the jams and pickles above, a great thing to make at home. That way you can choose the degree of spice and crunch you want. Apart from the inevitable streaming eyes as you deal with the onions it’s a fun activity too. The pork pie description is a guideline only and I am not suggesting hot water pastry formed round a mould as anything other than a either a challenge or penance. However your local butchers and delis will be delighted to share their award winning versions of pork/huntsman/game pies and, in some parts of the country even a pastie will suffice.
To get you in a more holiday mood a tomato and basil salad (homegrown or purchased of course). Although the traditional accompaniment would be a handled glass of cool but not chilled bitter beer, even my palate these days is happier with a nice glass of red wine and some olives. I challenge anyone, even during the warmest summer in England, to find growers and producers of either. Support your local deli.