This month, not for the first time, How To Eat is in the pub. The blog considering the best way to eat Britain’s most beloved dishes has a pint settling on the bar. It is time to pick over the ploughman’s lunch.
Pedants will take great pleasure in pointing out that this “classic” was only actually given a name and a PR push in the 1960s, by the Milk Marketing Board, but people, including some ploughmen, had been eating bread and cheese with beer for aeons. Therefore, no matter how it has been glossed, this stands as a much-loved British meal, and one which people feel passionately about. As Tommy Cooper once put it: “I had a ploughman’s lunch the other day … he was livid.”
A plated ploughman’s works in a routinely functional way, but a wooden board is preferable. What could be better, in fact, than a large, heavily laden chopping board shared between two, which you eat armed only with a butter knife and a small kitchen knife, each?* You may want to use side-plates for buttering bread on, but, really, that is all you need. Accept you are going to make a mess and get stuck in. Will you need to use your fingers as a fork? You will. What of it?
To minimise clutter and the amount of “work” that you will need to do on that invariably cramped board, all items should be ready sliced, readily accessible and placed directly onto the board. That means softened butter; no warm loaves served in twee little bread tins; sliced eggs; chutneys dolloped in neat, pooling piles, rather than in dainty pots with unnecessary spoons.
NB. How To Eat disregards slate as serving apparatus. It gathers chutney in its flaws and indentations, and who wants to hear knives scraping and clattering against slate? The silent give of a sharp blade against a wooden board is far more satisfying.
*Yes, you are going to use the same knife for the butter, chutneys and, possibly, several cheeses. Take a deep breath, feel the fear, do it anyway. If you need to, clean the knife on the bread or just wipe your finger down the blade and suck off the debris. This is a ploughman’s. You are not taking tea at the Dorchester.
It is sometimes tempting to construct a sandwich. Resist that urge. Is that sandwich bread on that board? Cut to sandwich thickness? No. What you are going to end up with is a doorstep (and who ever, really, wants a doorstep sandwich?), of bread, ham, pickle and cheddar (second only to silica gel in its ability to absorb moisture), that is so dry that you will need, not a pint, but rehydrating by medical professionals in order to finish it.
When there is more than enough to go around, sharing is a pleasure. When you cannot evenly divide the cheddar because the piece is microscopic, it is a fraught experience. Therefore, if you are going to share a ploughman’s between two, order a platter for four. You need enough food, that, as you struggle to finish it, you are left clutching at the table, barely suppressing the need to puke. Otherwise, sharing will end in acrimony.