This month looks at how pub classic the ploughman's is an ideal dish for licensees wanting to develop their food offer
Why put it on the menu
British Cheese Week (1 to 7 October) is fast approaching and is an ideal opportunity for licensees to maximise the opportunity for one of the most celebrated pub meals - the ploughman's.
If there is one dish all pubs have the potential to offer it's this one. The dish is a sensible starting point for a fledgling food offer - it requires minimal investment to see how receptive your customers may be. It's incredibly easy and quick to serve, and simple to prepare. The ingredients are easy to obtain, keep well and equipment costs are negligible.
Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board, says: "It's a meal fit for a king, let alone a ploughman. Any pub not serving one is really missing out on an opportunity."
Campaign for Real Ale spokesman Owen Morris says: "A ploughman's and a pint of real ale is simply the quintessential pub lunch, which is why it has been enjoyed by generations and continues to prove popular today. It may be the simplest of dishes, but for a no-nonsense meal that is guaranteed to satisfy, you can't go wrong with a ploughman's and a pint."
Jonathan Jones, chef/partner of award-winning gastropub the Anchor & Hope, in Southwark, south London, says: "It's a wonderful thing - it's a shame more people don't do it. One person can just come in and have one plate of food, no messing around. This is a particularly good time of year for ploughman's - cows' milk cheeses are at their best and English apples are just starting to come into season."
Origins of the ploughman's
The term ploughman's was launched from a joint marketing venture between the then Licensed Victuallers Association and the British Milk Marketing Board.
Records are hazy but it seems the name for the dish was introduced in the late 1960s in a bid to boost sales of cheese in the pub trade. The dish carries a nostalgic appeal, which ties in with the decor and setting of the traditional country pub.
The exact make-up of a ploughman's is a hotly-debated subject. Some customers sniff at the presence of a salad garnish, while the lack of good-quality cold and unsalted butter causes others to storm back to the bar, platter in hand.
Most ploughman's purists would agree three basic elements must be present, cheese, bread, and pickle. The bread and cheese are the most critical, they should both be of good quality, the former must be fresh and the latter should be well kept and not fridge cold.
Richard Willis, head chef of the Jolly Sports-man, in East Chiltington, near Lewes, East Sussex says: "We offer a five-cheese ploughman's. It's a popular option, especially when the weather's fine - it's a good thing to have in the garden with a pint on a sunny day. We offer a good selection of cheese that changes regularly. We always include English cheeses but also try and include some French, Italian and Spanish cheeses for variety."
At present the pub's ploughman's includes award-winning Keen's Cheddar, from Somerset, and Idiazábal, an unpasteurised Spanish cheese made from ewe's milk. The pub kitchen makes all its chutneys and pickles in-house and sources many of its cheeses from small artisan producers.
"It's something all good pubs should do and do well," said Caroline Cheffers-Heard, licensee of the Bridge Inn, Topsham, Devon, whose family have owned the pub since 1897. "Our version has only changed a little since my great-grandmother was serving them. Everything is sourced from within Devon, apart from the Cropwell Bishop Stilton,
which comes from Nottinghamshire. We're very well known for our beer, but I think the ploughman's is a close runner-up - it's a great combination."
Most pubs serve Cheddar, but Brie and Stilton also make regular appearances.
Sarah Bilney, general manager of London-based supplier La Fromagerie, says: "I think a good ploughman's should have one kind of cheese, preferably a strong cheddar like Montgomery's Cheddar or Keen's Cheddar from Somerset. Other hard English cheeses like Cheshire and Lancashire are good because they go so well with beer."
How to serve the cheese
Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board, says: "Everything should be of high quality - better than you can get in a supermarket - you need a point of difference."
White recommends that licensees always take the cheese out of the fridge first - it makes all the difference. He recommends serving the cheese at 20°C. He says: "It's worth remembering that cheese is a living product so the flavour and texture is significantly better at room temperature."
Taking the cheese out of the fridge in ad-vance does present problems. The environmental health officers may take issue with cheese being left out for prolonged periods of time. A detailed and well thought-out Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) procedure should alleviate any concerns.
One option is to pre-portion cheese before service and leave out what you need. Pre-portioned cheese will take significantly less time to come up to room temperature and will also benefit stock control because you won't be doing it in a rush as the orders come in. You will also cut down on wastage by cutting, for example, a whole wheel of cheese in one go, rather than hacking it off to order.
Brakes has launched a range of 23 cheese wedges including varieties such as Spanish Manchego, organic Cheddar, organic Brie and ripening Brie Pays. The smaller format is easier for caterers to cut, slice and dice.
Cheese should be cut with a reasonably heavy, thin-bladed knife. For some cheeses, warming the blade in boiling water can help prevent crumbling and give a neat effect. Cheese specialists H&B foods offers a bespoke cheese-cutting service on all of their cheeses and cut portions as small as 20g using ultrasonic technology. A minimum order applies and the cheese comes delivered in sealed trays with a minimum sell by date of 14 days.
Sarah Bilney of La Fromagerie, says: "One bit of advice I would give to people considering offering a ploughman's would be to think carefully about portion size. In my experience, pubs always give far too much. We would usually suggest about 50g and would warn against a portion over 100g."
Nigel White agrees: "Quality over quantity. There is a big difference in price. Good quality cheese is twice as expensive as the mass-produced industrial stuff, but it is worth it."
Paul Bloxham of the Tilbury, in Datchworth, Hertfordshire, says: "I think you should always buy the best ingredients you can. I think we sometimes lose money on our cheese because I don't like giving tight portions - it takes away a lot of the rustic appeal, you need a good hunk of cheese."
Pub caterers should consider introducing some local cheeses to add a point of difference and interest to their menus. "Customers have never been more interested in provenance, sustainability and food miles - cheese is the perfect ingredient," say Nigel White. "Every area of England produces some sort of cheese, it really adds something to the menu when you can say that the cheese comes from down the road or even from a nearby town."
Branston pickle or similar is the pub standard, but there is a huge selection to choose from. Consider matching chutneys and pickles with specific cheeses. Caroline Cheffers-Heard offers three ploughman's at the Bridge Inn: mature Cheddar with apple and cider chutney; Stilton with pear and ginger chutney; and smoked chicken with gooseberry pickle.
Terry McGarr, sales manager at supplier Hawkshead Relish, says: "When picking a pickle or chutney to go with a cheese it is important that they compliment each other. For a creamy or lighter cheese I suggest going for a fruitier chutney and for harder cheeses or c