Ploughman’s lunch n. Brit. a cold meal, usually including bread and cheese, typically with pickle and salad, often served in public houses at lunchtime.

A Ploughman's Lunch - A Pub Classic:
A GOOD OLD LOCAL PUB. ARRETON .ISLE OF WIGHT. UK., a photo by ronsaunders47 on Flickr.

If you’re in a traditional pub in Britain, you will probably see something called a “ploughman’s lunch” on the menu. While the contents of this meal vary from one institution to another, the basics are

  • bread
  • cheese
  • pickle
Basically, this is a vegetarian sandwich with little side items. The rustic spread hearkens back to the days when hard working ploughmen went out into the dewy, predawn fields with their faithful old horses to break the unyielding ground with their ancestral ploughshares, working until the hot afternoon when they rested under the great oak tree and partook of the contents of their lunchboxes which their little wives had…

…well, you get the picture.

Field and cottages by treehouse1977
Field and cottages, a photo by treehouse1977 on Flickr.
Actually, it is debatable that the ploughman’s lunch has any sort of venerable history. It was first mentioned in John G. Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837),

The surprised poet swung forth to join them, with an extemporized sandwich, that looked like a ploughman’s luncheon, in his hand.

We aren’t exactly sure what this luncheon consisted of. It probably doesn’t resemble anything that we have today. In fact, the next mention of the meal comes from the 1960s, when the British Milk Marketing Board and the Licensed Victuallers Association were pumping cheese propaganda into Britain and encouraging this “old-fashioned” meal–which conveniently featured a huge block of cheese.

Nevertheless, a good meal is a good meal, no matter what time period it comes from.

If you order this lunch you’ll see soon enough what it’s made of, but what if you’re a poor expat without access to a good old-fashioned pub? This is the place for you.

Here is a step-by-step tutorial on making your own luncheon, a quick and easy meal fit for the most famished ploughman.

A Ploughman's Lunch -
My own plouhgman’s lunch. It was so delicious!

Select Your Bread

You are probably going to buy your bread (though if you want to make it, use Delia Smith’s recipe). Find a white or brown loaf with a crusty exterior, something like a baguette that will be able hold up all of the goodies you’re going to pile on top of it.

British Cheese

The important thing about choosing your cheese is that it should be authentic. Whether it’s the earthy Dorset cheddar, tasty Lancashire, velvety Stilton, or Stinking Bishop, make sure it’s genuinely British and has delightful flavor and texture–neither crumbly, nor rubbery.

A Proper Pickle

Something vinegary and pungent is needed to offset the earthy bread and cheese. This is where the pickle, chutney, or piccalilli comes in. Branston Pickle is perhaps the most popular choice. A dollop of this chunky brown stuff will liven up any ploughman’s platter. You could also open a jar of pickled onions, or a mustardy piccalilli. If you want to make your own pickle, look no farther than the spunky classic Pan Yan Pickle.

Green Stuff

A health-conscious addition to the spread is salad. This could involve crisp green lettuce, and/or rocket (eruca sativa, a peppery green that I’d never heard of before). Add some sliced celery if you wish, green onions, radishes, and even steamed potatoes. In fact, you can turn the entire lunch into this hearty salad.
Having a ploughman’s lunch -
Having a ploughman’s lunch, a photo by adactio on Flickr.


Optional Extras

Those are the most elemental components of the meal, but you can improvise on the basic melody. Slice up a sweet apple that complements the cheese, add a wedge of cold meat pie, bits of ham, perhaps even some pâté. Boiled eggs are a common accompaniment, scotch eggs less so but very tasty.

The Beverage

Ah yes, the final problem. What will you choose? The popular consensus seems fixed on “real” English ale (as opposed to that fake stuff), or traditional cider. Teetotalers will probably prefer a mug of strong tea.



Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Philip Johnson Reply

    Very nicely phrased and very informative. As tomorrow (11th of January 2016) is Plough Monday, I was toying with the idea of a ‘ploughman’s lunch’. I have watched people eating rather huge lumps of strong cheddar and gigantic pickled onions with great slabs of bread but I have see refined selections of bread, cunning pickle medleys and selections of delicate cheese. The trouble is , as you write, I will know when I see it. I wonder why there is no similar Miners’ Snap (now, sadly, there probably will never be). Anyway, the article had an apt choice of quotation and historical comment.Happy New Year!

  2. Anthony matts Reply

    Absolutely accurate, but would you believe environmental health officers insist on 5 c so the food has to be ice cold – not at all traditional

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