The ploughman’s lunch, historically, is pub fare. A plate consisting of: bread, cheese, pickles, and cold meat, maybe an apple, boiled egg, and some butter and, of course, a fine ale.
Marketed in the mid-century by the Cheese Bureau of the U.K. as a way of promoting and selling cheese after WW II rationing had ceased; the ploughman’s lunch is thought to have been around long before big cheese put their best Don Draper equivalent on the job.
For the purposes of this pairing I decided to “update” the ploughman’s lunch by going further back in history, and borrowing from traditional French Charcuterie boards. The kind one would normally see being enjoyed by avid wine drinkers while swirling and sniffing inquisitively from their glasses. The ploughman’s lunch and the charcuterie board are very similar in components, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that the Cheese Bureau realized this, and played on the strengths of the United Kingdom as not only a wonderful cheese producer, but all those amazing British ales as well. Unfortunately, this is not an article about marketing conspiracy theories of 1950’s beer and cheese producers in The United Kingdom.
Let’s get started!
For this pairing, you are going to need to develop, or acquire, a recipe and some ingredients for a nice English Bitter homebrew and get brewing. The original of the recipe I use is one I found featured on episode 10 of Chop & Brew. I use pellet hops instead of whole leaf, and I don’t do any of the “burtonizing” of the water as I have no actual understanding of what I would be doing to my brewing water, but I still get a beautiful bitter that is flavorful, balanced, sessionable, and scores in the good to very good section of homebrew competitions. Additionally, the turnaround is quick and I am generally drinking it 2 weeks after brewing with kegging. Because of the low ABV. (Read: light grain bill.) it is easy to do a double batch. At about 3.5% this beer can be enjoyed on a work night, or during the day for some of that coveted day drinking.
While English Bitter is supposed to be “decidedly bitter” by BJCP standards, it is nowhere near that of an IPA or even a standard Pale Ale. Yet, the flavor “bang for your buck” is unheard-of by today’s standards. With minimal ingredients, this beer really shines as a balanced malt and hop love affair with a nice dry finish. The use of an English yeast strain is crucial, but should be fermented on the cooler end to restrain fruity esters.
As far as I am a concerned, your homebrewed bitter should be a delicious entry level offering for any of your holdout friends who still dedicate their hard earned dollars to the “world’s most refreshing beer,” or any kind of beer that is “brewed the hard way”.
For the ploughman’s lunch or charcuterie board, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you wish, and therein lies the beauty of this pairing. You can keep it simple, and by simple, I mean white bread and processed cheese simple. I tried it, and it tasted delicious, but I am trying to create a reputation that one day I will have to uphold, so we aren’t going to keep it that simple. By keeping it simple in terms I considered to be simple, I ventured into the deli/cheese/cold and cured meat section of my closest grocery store, not my favorite grocery store, but a store within walking distance, that had what I needed at a reasonable price. I didn’t buy the most expensive cheeses and meats, I just bought what caught my eye. Soft goat cheeses, prosciutto, Spanish chorizo, whole grain mustard and palate cleansing fruits like apples are all wonderful additions to your version of the ploughman’s lunch.
While walking through the endless aisles I thought about the crackers I was planning to purchase and I was reminded that I am a professional culinarian and I can literally make, or learn to make, everything that I wanted to put on my charcuterie board. Nearly every restaurant I have ever worked in has had some kind of meat and cheese board on the menu, with items that were made in house. Whether you want to make your own mustards and preserves, or breads and cheeses, or start curing your own meats, the information is out there, so it is possible to do. I personally own numerous books dedicated to bread making, cheese making, and meat curing.
I thought about it for a bit and went over my basket of planned purchases, I was already making the beer, why stop there? Ultimately I decided that over complicating this was something I would save for a later date. “Keep it simple” is a phrase that I try to live by, however simple it may seem, I still struggle with it, especially when it comes to homebrewing and cooking.
Lucky for us this pairing is simple and delightful. Bread or crackers bring out the biscuity Marris Otter notes in the beer, while the First Gold hops lend a gentle spice and complexity to each bite. There was a sweetness when taking a sip after a bite of Manchego cheese that I have never gotten from Manchego or the bitter alone. Chevre which literally translates to “goat cheese” is also a good choice and will likely add to the wow factor if using this pairing for a little “drink some of my homebrew” get together, or rather SWMBO’s friends are coming over, and you want to justify your garage (or in my case, guest room) full of brewing equipment.