The Labour Day long weekend sparked this investigation into the sturdily named Ploughman’s Lunch. Images of backbreaking work and a day’s toil finishing with a bity cheddar and some pickles on a slab of bread accompanied with a pint of beer seemed appropriate and the name may have originally come about back in the 1800s in Britain when wives packed lunch for their husbands who worked as ploughmen, to provide them a good meal for warmer weather during their working day. Although on the other end of the spectrum, it seems that the plate of food we have become familiar with as the Ploughman’s Lunch was most likely borne of a marketing idea in 1960s Britain to get consumer’s to eat more cheese!
Romantic delusion and marketing tool aside, the Ploughman’s Lunch took off as a perfect lunch or supper and has had a long happy life since. It’s happy life is extending into inner-city pubs and cafes here, where Ploughman’s are getting a little fancy with great cheddars, quality cold meats and sharp pickles but it continues to instill comfort, familiarity and sit very well with a good beer or cider.
Like any other dish, the Ploughman’s Lunch is open to interpretation but it’s origins lie in authentic crumbly English cheddar and it’s appropriately delicious accompaniments - think ham, salad vegetables, bread and pickles. Not just any pickles though, during its 60s renaissance the Ploughman’s lunch included Branston pickle, readily available, jarred pickled vegetables commercially produced by English food company Crosse & Blackwell.
So important is the Branston pickle on the Ploughman’s to chef Paul Wilson, he’s not leaving it out in Melbourne. “It’s almost folklore at home,” says the English native, “ if you gave an Englishman a Ploughman’s without Branston, he’d have a go at you.” Wilson has continued his love of the Ploughman’s lunch by putting it on the Counter Meal menu in the bar at the Middle Park Hotel where he is consultant chef.
“My dad always liked a Ploughman’s, “ Wilson says, “we had it in the summer , it was a bit of a treat. In today’s terms, it’s a little like having an antipasto or mezze and that’s probably why it’s gaining popularity here, there’s bits and pieces to choose from and, it makes you less guilty about having a beer at lunchtime.”
The Middle Park’s Ploughman’s has a good cheddar - usually Will Studd’s select cheddar - two types of ham - perhaps leg ham and a cured, smoked pork loin - lots of breakfast radishes, Branston pickle (of course) and a Scotch egg, the addition is the only break from tradition.
Drive into the city and you’ll find a few more Ploughman’s and more interpretation. Michael Orgill, manager of CBD cafe and bar, Von Haus finds that putting the Ploughman’s on in the cooler weather works for their daily changing menu. “We tend to put it on in autumn and ainter as the months cool, it’s a lighter option,” he says. He also sees the freedom of how to enjoy your Ploughman’s as part of the growing appeal, “ It’s almost like a make-your-own lunch, make a sandwich, eat a little at a time with some bread, it’s up to you.”
Von Haus’s Ploughman’s has some vintage cheddar, either a vintage Farmhouse Cheddar from Cornwall or Pyengana Cheddar from Tasmania with some ham, pastrami, a boiled egg and cornichons. Their interpretation seems to have its own, loyal following and appears on the menu regularly.
Despite its blurry origins, the Ploughman’s has proved to be an easy marketing tool and in Melbourne’s context is allowing us to enjoy the simple pleasure of some good cheese and pickle. The rise and rise of share plate dining in Melbourne has most likely seen the popularity of this simple dish increase, although the Ploughman’s is as personal or as shareable as you wish.