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A bit of a pickle

Friday lunchtime was a “business meeting” at the Jolly Farmer in Cookham Dean, which is pretty much our company’s “staff restaurant”.  Rather than my usual Brakspear Bitter I decided to try a pint of Young’s Bitter (3.7%) for a change.  This is a very pale straw-coloured beer, very drinkable – light and refreshing, like a good lunchtime pint should be – the question was how would it measure up to the ploughman’s lunch?  The answer was – not very well.  It’s a lovely beer, and given the opportunity, one that I could drink a few pints of, but it just doesn’t have the strength of flavour to stand up to the sharpness of a pickled onion, the sweetness of Branston pickle or the tang of Stilton – those types of flavours need something a bit more robust.  I followed the Young’s with a half of Brakspear Bitter.  Although this only weighs in at 3.4% it has a far more robust flavour than the Young’s – enough to tackle the tastes of the ploughman’s.

On the subject of the ploughman’s lunch, I’ve mentioned before that apart from beer this is the thing that most typifies the British pub.  But the construction and quality varies significantly from pub to pub – even within the same pub on different days.  So what are the essential ingredients of a “proper” ploughman’s lunch?  Well, in my entirely subjective view they are:

  • Bread.  Preferably hunks from a (white) loaf – home-made if possible.  Too often these days you get bits of baguette or French stick – which is just not the same.  Brown or Granary bread is OK, but I think white goes best.
  • Butter.  OK “spread” if you are health-conscious (in which case there are far more unhealthy ingredients to follow!).  A big knob of butter on the plate is great – or a separate dish of butter – I can’t be doing with the fiddly individually packaged portions.  My pet hate is the butter that comes straight from the fridge and is too solid to spread on the bread without ripping it to shreds.
  • Cheese.  For me a ploughman’s has to be cheese – I know that many pubs offer other things, such as ham, but I don’t think these are adequate substitutes.  And the cheese has to be something with plenty of flavour, such as a mature cheddar or stilton – these varieties are ubiquitous, but it’s nice to try the local varieties if you can – for instance Wensleydale or Caerphilly.
  • Branston Pickle.  This can be a bit sweet, but if the cheese is strong enough, it will cope with a bit of Branston.
  • Pickled onion.  Absolutely essential, but often omitted.  The bigger the better, and should bring tears to the eyes.

Anything else is optional.  I’m not averse to a bit of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, cress, watercress, sweet pepper, etc. – in moderate quantities.  I’m not impressed by the modern tendency to use cherry tomatoes rather than the more traditional varieties.  I also don’t object to a bit of apple – cheese and apple do go very well together.  Ingredients such as coleslaw are an abomination, and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a ploughman’s.

Well, those are my personal preferences, and it’s clear that not all beers will adequately support the ploughman’s lunch.  It’s fun trying a few combinations though.

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