Ploughperson’s Pleasure

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Medieval ploughman at work
Dreaming of a well-earned lunch?

In the spring of 2022 Dicky Harrison, the landlord of the Tors pub in Belstone, Devon hit upon the idea of renaming a classic pub favourite as a ‘ploughperson’s lunch’ in honour of the women farmworkers in the Dartmoor area. As a publicity stunt it worked beautifully, reportedly provoking ‘fury’ in his customers and the wider community of Twitterati who accused Dickie of being part of the ‘woke’ brigade trying to change history. After all it was a well-known fact that ploughmen had been lunching on bread and cheese since the dawn of history…

Of course there’s a lot of truth in that, even when bellowed out by an anti-woke warrior like Nigel Farage. Bread, and cheese have been a popular combination for ever (especially if beer is added!). Around 1394 it gets a mention in Piers Plowman. In Francis Grose’s ‘Provincial Glossary‘ of 1787 we learn that Kentish ploughmen “… eat a bit of bread and cheese and drink some beer when they come out of the fields at ten in the morning and six in the evening”. In Devon the labourers drank ‘sour cider’ rather than beer but there are examples from medieval times onwards of the ubiquity of bread and cheese as a midday meal.

The reliance on bread and cheese (rather than the more expensive protein provided by meat) may have spoken of rural poverty but the simple lunch also gained associations with those idealised images of rural life which featured highly in paintings of the countryside from the 1850s onward. Anthony Trollope in his final Palliser novel has a character observe patronisingly that “A rural labourer who sits on the ditch-side with his bread and cheese and an onion has more enjoyment out of it than any Lucullus.” Whether that labourer knew about the lavish banquets hosted by that Roman gastronome is doubtful. In similar vein in 1859 the ‘Western Daily Press‘ recalled how the Duke of Wellington; “would eat bread and cheese like any ploughman.”

Apparently the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first recorded instance of the use of the term ‘ploughman’s luncheon’ appeared in John Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837). I don’t have either the dictionary or the memoirs to hand but I gather that this may simply refer to the lunch of a specific ploughman rather than a well-known type of meal.

For pubs in market towns, offering a meal of bread and cheese made commercial sense. As well as being simple to prepare its saltiness made the punters thirstier and buy more beer. In the first half of the 20th century, it was still usually the only food available in many village inns. But I haven’t found any evidence that customers were being offered a ‘ploughman’s lunch’.

Astonishingly, at the start of the second world war, we were importing more than 70% of our cheese. which unsurprisingly was rationed from 1942. This continued until the early 1950s, allowing only 2oz (57g) of cheese a week per person, so there wasn’t much scope for pubs to offer a traditional ploughman’s lunch. Once rationing was over it took a long time for sales of cheese to pick up. Enter the Cheese Bureau which according to the July 1956 edition of the Brewers’ Society Monthly Bulletin was set up ‘for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and, as a corollary, the public house lunch of bread, beer, cheese, and pickles’.

Around the same time the writer on rural matters, Adrian Bell spoke about a pub near where he lived where ‘all you need say is, “Ploughboy’s Lunch, Harry, please”. And in a matter of minutes a tray is handed across the counter to you on which is a good square hunk of bread, a lump of butter and a wedge of cheese, and pickled onions, along with your pint of beer. Ploughboy’s Lunch, that’s called – remember those words: they stand for something pretty good’.

The modern version of the ploughman/s lunch

It’s not clear exactly when the term ploughman’s lunch became general currency but in November 1961 the English Country Cheese Council of 29 November purchased 5,000 Ploughman’s Lunch show-cards in conjunction with the Milk Marketing Board, presumably for distribution to pubs.

Publicans did begin to take note, but it took a concerted publicity campaign over the next few years to re-establish the connection between cheese and beer and to associate the name of a ploughman’s lunch with the meal. In 1962 a board outside the White Hart in the Sussex village of Catsfield, stated that ‘although lunch is not served, Salads and Ploughman’s lunch – beer and cheese – are always available’.

During the 1970s this lunch which was not a lunch rose rapidly in popularity. It may have owed something to the growing hankering for a bucolic England lost forever, but it’s just as likely due to it being simple and quick to prepare even for less skilled pub staff, requiring no cooking, and involving no meat, giving a better profit margin.

And by the time the landlord of the Tors pub put his ploughperson’s offering on sale it was more complicated (and pricier) than a plate of bread and cheese. For a platter of Devon cheese, ham roasted with molasses and English mustard, pickled onion, chutney, and sourdough bread the Tors was charging £12.50. At the time of writing the pub no longer has this on its lunch menu.

A (very) quick search only turned up one pub currently serving the ploughman’s lunch. At the fittingly-named Ploughman in Peterculter (a suburb of Aberdeen) this was on the menu at £14.90: The Ploughman’s “Lunch” Platter – perfect for sharing or to satisfy a healthy appetite on its own! Pork Pie, quality Cheddar, Chicken Liver Pâté, Homemade Chutney, Apple & Crusty Bread & Butter. I’m sure there’s lots more. Let me know

While writing this piece, I was told by someone from the north-east that up there they talk about a ploughman’s sarnie – which saves laying everything out on a plate, I suppose. Perhaps in a way that’s more in keeping with the original style of the ploughman’s midday meal. Oddly it seems that sarnie (first appearing in the 1970s) is more commonly used in the south than in the north. And in South Africa they call it a ‘sarmie’.

To the right is the ploughman’s sarnie as offered by a sandwich shop in Adelaide. Hello Sarnie is a shop started by two Englishmen who thought the Australians should have proper freshly made sandwiches. They’ve now got four stores in Adelaide so they must be getting something right!

Tesco offers a ploughman’s sandwich for £2.00 (I’m sure other sandwiches are available). I doubt it has the charm of a real pub ploughman’s served with a pint of best bitter. Luxury!

On a similar subject see also A Tale of Many Sandwiches.

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