Pub Classics - Ripe for a Makeover

By Richard Fox

- Last updated on GMT

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With demand for speciality cheeses growing, Richard Fox looks at how the ploughman's is set to shake off its image problem and become a sexy addition...

With demand for speciality cheeses growing, Richard Fox looks at how the ploughman's is set to shake off its image problem and become a sexy addition to the menu.

How many pubs do you know that have the same name as one of the dishes on their menu? Give up? Try these for starters - or rather a main course of full-blown rustic flavour: the Old Plough, the Golden Plough, the old Ploughman and the Ploughman's. Got it yet? A final clue: in 1984, Channel Four made a film (to great reviews) called The Ploughman's Lunch.

Of all the pub classics, the ploughman's lunch must be the embodiment of traditional quality pub values: the centre of the community providing simple, honest fare and liquid refreshment to satisfy the hunger and thirst of the hard-working members of the locality. The ploughman's lunch is as synonymous with the pub as the beer itself.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first citation of the term ploughman's lunch to 1837, but it was probably being served in one form or another well before this when "ale wives" were providing sustenance to hungry farm workers in the days when national breweries weren't even a glint in the eye of the fermenting vessel.

Just as wine, in recent years, has overshadowed beer in its own back yard, so the ploughman's has lost its stalwart status in the face of the Thai green curry, chicken tikka masala and grilled tiger prawn onslaught. Indeed the plight of these two bedfellows is, by no coincidence, a mirror image.

In the last 10 years, the ploughman's and beer have both suffered from an image problem. As far as beer is concerned, the finger of blame can be pointed, at least in part, at the proliferation of bland keg lager and a lack of response by the brewers to the wine invasion into beer's spiritual home. Meanwhile, the ploughman's Achilles heel has been the proliferation of those rectangles of overprocessed plastic-wrapped cheese resembling shrink-wrapped Jenga pieces.

Add some waterlogged slices of processed ham and you've got more of a recipe for industrial waste than for food. But you can't keep a good thing down.

As we see a return to traditional English dishes, an embracing of seasonality, and an appreciation of artisan farming methods, the ploughman's must surely be at the front of the queue for a triumphant return - just as we are seeing the exponential growth of the micro brewer, speciality beers and regionally-brewed bottled products of the highest quality. It's simply a case of quality of ingredients.

What of the component parts of the ploughman's then? Cheese, ham, crusty bread and pickle are the key players. After that, it's pretty much irrelevant. The key to success lies in the sourcing of the ingredients; and what an awesome choice of quality regional cheeses we have: Cheddar, Leicestershire, Wensleydale, Swaledale, Derby, Gloucester, Stilton, Caerphilly, Cheshire, Cotswold, Dorset Blue Vinny, Cornish Yarg and Stilton to name but a few. Try to locate a farmhouse or artisan producer of your local cheese based on reputation.

It's a similar story with ham. While the basic brine for curing legs of pork is water and salt, there are regional variations dating back centuries, where flavourings such as spices, beer, cider, sugar and even hops are added to the basic brine.

Wiltshire and Suffolk are two of the most famous but there are many others worth checking out. For those of you who want to go the full hog - if you'll pardon the pun - why not create your own "house" cure?

If you really want to go along this route, and potentially build yourself a national reputation for the ultimate in homecooked food, I suggest you read Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Cookbook.

As far as pickles go, the world is your oyster. Home-made pickles are easy and cheap to prepare and will last for months in sterilised, air-tight jars.

One of my favourites is a pineapple pickle which is simply a small dice of pineapple cooked for about an hour and a half with some white wine vinegar, demerara sugar, wholegrain mustard and saffron.

For greater profit and publicity why not make extra, put it in jars and sell them behind the bar? Not only is it a great way to create a talking point for your ploughman's but it's a unique selling point that helps to enhance the overall image of your business.

It's really no surprise, then, that the ploughman's belongs in the English pub. The component parts of the dish are heaven sent as a match for English ale: good English cheese has the sharp edge taken off it when accompanied by a fine hoppy ale, while the cheese adds to the depth of the beer, rounding off the bitterness and enhancing the creaminess.

In fact there's such a synergy between beer and cheese that many producers use beer as an ingredient. Ilchester from Gloucestershire is a soft cheddar mixed with beer and herbs, while Mrs Judy Bell in Yorkshire makes a fabulous Theakston's Old Peculiar cheese.

Traditional ham cures are as steeped in local tradition as the beers themselves and, as with all lifelong partners, there's a harmonious relationship, based on a mutual, unspoken understanding.

Finally the intense fruitiness of a good pickle is a perfect match for the fruity notes of a good English ale. So, the moral of the story is: embrace the very best your locality has to offer, put it on the plate - and you won't even have to do any cooking.

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