By Sarah Pridgeon
We’ve reached that time of the year when the prospect of slaving over a hot stove becomes increasingly harrowing. It is now the era of the cold supper, at least in my household, and I will be sticking to this mantra even if that pesky rain keeps up.
But while I enjoy an inspired salad as much as the next rabbit, you can really only eat so much lettuce over the course of a day. So may I introduce a meal that has both proved its mettle over countless centuries and seems singularly appropriate for this corner of the world.
I speak of the Ploughman’s Lunch, a spread of foods celebrating all things rural that appears exotic and exciting when presented but, on second glance, is largely comprised of the simplest ingredients you can imagine. Somehow, because it looks so pretty and invites you to develop your own personal eating style, it’s easy to forget that you are essentially eating a deconstructed cheese sandwich.
The Ploughman’s originated in the distant mists of time, before it became normal to eat a main meal in the evening and when agricultural work occupied a high percentage of Brits. A lunch had to be packed for these farm laborers, consisting mainly of bread, cheese and pickles.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s that a clever soul by the name of Sir Trehane wrote a book romanticizing this simple meal, evoking the idyllic traditions of the countryside. Why did he do it? Because, at that time, he was the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board. Apparently, we Brits weren’t eating enough cheese, now rationing had come to an end, to keep his numbers up.
What made his idea particularly clever was that most pubs at the time were low on amenities such as plumbing and chefs, but the original Ploughman’s Lunch only needed raw ingredients that could be stored in the cellar and thrown together by the bar staff.
He also cleverly avoided defining which particular cheese should be used, so every region today has its own version of a Ploughman’s, from cheddar to Cheshire and Double Gloucester to Wensleydale.
These days, you’ll find modern versions of a Ploughman’s Lunch on almost every pub menu in the country, all thanks to the cunning of one man. You’ll also find that many believe this dish serves as a barometer for the rest of the menu – if they can’t sort out a decent chunk of cheese, move on down the street.
To make this summer fare, you can either raid the fridge or shop for a few more exotic ingredients. First up, you’ll need a hunk of the crustiest bread you can find and chunks of your favorite cheese.
If you can get your hands on a British cheese, so much the better – purely for authenticity, of course. Our cheeses tend to be crumblier and have a more powerful flavor, which can be an acquired taste if you’re used to the relatively mild varieties that are typical over here.
Next you’ll need a couple of pickled onions, which you can make by combining a quarter cup of salt with four cups of water and placing a kilogram of small, white onions in the bowl overnight, covered at room temperature. Drain and pack into sterilized jars, then place four cups of white vinegar and half a cup of sugar in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes until it slightly thickens. Cool completely, then cover the onions, seal the jars and allow to stand for three weeks before using.
Arrange these items on your platter with slices of baked ham, soft hard-boiled eggs and crisp apple, as well as celery stalks, halved radishes, a handful of the lettuce of your choice and some tomato.
Now for the pickle, otherwise known as chutney. In Britain, we have a favorite brand that has a habit of appearing everywhere you see a slice of cheese. It’s called Branston Original and you can purchase jars online, but you can always make your own version.
Branston Pickle is chunks of vegetables in a thick brown sauce. The best recipe I’ve found calls for 3 lbs tomatoes, a celery stick, two large onions, two medium carrots, half a rutabaga, half a cauliflower, two applies, four gherkins and a handful of dates, all finely chopped.
Add this to a large pan with a handful of dried fruit, a sprinkle of allspice, 7 oz of brown sugar, 500 ml of vinegar, a teaspoon of lemon juice and season to taste. Simmer for an hour and a half, skimming the scum from the top, and then leave to stand in sterilized, sealed jars for a few weeks before using.
Finally, pork pie – another British favorite. These come in a variety of sizes, from bitesize to gargantuan, but it’s most common to find slices from a medium pie on your Ploughman’s plate (you can adapt this recipe to make single serve pies if you prefer, however).
For the filling, mix 1 lb 12 oz minced pork shoulder, 14 oz minced pork belly, 9 oz cubed smoked bacon, half a teaspoon of ground mace, two pinches of nutmeg, a tablespoon of fresh chopped sage, a teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme and seasoning.
Make your pastry by placing 20 oz plain flour in a bowl. Heat 7 oz lard and 220 ml water until the lard melts, then stir it into the flour with a wooden spoon. Knead until smooth as soon as the mixture is cool enough to handle.
Roll out three quarters of the dough in a circle and use it to line an eight-inch cake tin. Fill with the meat, packing down well, then roll out the remaining dough to add the lid, sealing all around the edges.
Make a hole in the center for steam and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, then an hour and a half at 320. Brush the top with beaten egg, return to the oven for 20 minutes and then leave to cool.
Meanwhile, soak six gelatin leaves in cold water for five minutes, then remove and squeeze out the excess water. Heat 300 ml chicken broth until almost boiling, remove from the heat and stir in the gelatin and then leave to cool.
Use a small funnel to pour this slowly into the pie through the hole at the top, then leave to set overnight in the fridge. Your pork pie is ready to be sliced and added to the plate and will serve a whole family with plenty of leftovers for another Ploughman’s tomorrow.