(Four) Variations on a Theme: Ploughman’s Lunch

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Without knowing it, we all probably have a ploughman’s lunch pretty regularly. It’s basically a deconstructed cheese sandwich: a hunk of cheese, a knob of rustic bread, sometimes some greens, sometimes some meat, a tangy pickle of sorts or some kind chutney-like condiment, and an apple. And a beer on the side. Imagine a kid’s lunchbox, and it’d probably contain a lot of the same components. Well, except for the beverage.

Here, four variations on a classic English ploughman’s lunch.

The English have been onto something for awhile: cheese and beer make superb partners in crime. But they’re onto something else, too: the ability of simple cheese accompaniments to transform a group of disparate elements — a sweet (fruit), a sour (pickles, relish, or chutney), and a salty (cheese, meat)– into a complete meal.

Let us first deconstruct the standard components of what goes into this English pub staple:

  • Cheese: Normally a hefty English cheese like a farmhouse cheddar, Caerphilly, Double Gloucester or Stilton.
  • Bread: Crusty and rustic. Think not-sliced bread.
  • Fruit: Typically an apple. Or sometimes a vegetable in the form of a simple salad.
  • A Pickle of sorts: Pickles, something pickled, or a chutney.
  • Meat: Nothing fancy, of the deli-sliced variety most usually, like ham. Or instead of meat, sometimes a hard-boiled egg for protein.
  • Beer: English.

If you think about it, these are elements that would look very much at home all grouped together on a pre- or post-dinner cheese plate, but why limit them to that most predictable application? Cheese is filling: protein-packed, soul-satisfying, and with virtually nothing to do for its preparation, very low-maintenance. Why it doesn’t take a more central role in your mid-day meal is beyond this cheesemonger’s comprehension.

The key is to pick a sturdy cheese as your centerpiece — think of one that could stand alone as a meal in and of itself. Think hefty cheddars and aged cheeses that don’t necessarily need bread as a vehicle to transport it from hand to mouth.

And now, the variations. And even if you’re not one for (or are restricted from) drinking at lunch, it’s nice to imagine the possibilities…

• Go French, and sub in Cantal or Salers for the cheese, cornichons for pickles, a mesclun salad with a simple dijon vinaigrette, some walnut bread, an Anjou pear (just to keep it French), and a hard cider.

• Go Italian with some aged pecorino, pickled peperoncini or olives, ciabatta or pugliese for bread, prosciutto, some cantalope, and a classic Italian beer like a Peroni or Moretti.

• Go Spanish. Idiazabal, that smokey, gamey sheep milk cheese from the Basque country makes perfect sense in this application, alongside some pressed fig cake, an orange, and caperberries, and some aged chorizo. And we’re favoring wine over beer here: go with a rose from Rioja.

• Go Indian. Keep the cheddar (and keep it an English one, as it only makes sense, historically), add some mango, lime, or lemon pickles, mango chutney, chapati or naan, and some Kingfisher beer.

And don’t let these suggestions be the end of it! Do you ever bring cheese and some simple accompaniments for lunch?

Related: Recipe: Ploughman’s Lunch

Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.

(Image: Kathryn Hill)