Saturday 15 September 2012

Ploughbaby and ploughmoron

At its best, the ploughman’s lunch, a combination of quality crusty bread, traditional British cheese and tasty pickles, is perhaps the crowning glory of pub food – simple, informal, straightforward, authentic and bursting with flavour and character. But, unfortunately, far too often (indeed probably most of the time) it is bastardised out of recognition, as I was complaining back in 1993.

The typical ways in which it falls short of the ideal include:

  • Excessive quantity of salad – OK, have a few lettuce leaves and cucumber slices for appearance’s sake, but don’t let them dominate
  • Introduction of extraneous elements such as ham, pork pies and apples
  • Getting the proportions of the basic ingredients wrong
  • Poor ingredients – supermarket bread and sweaty Value Cheddar
  • Simple lack of quantity
During the past week I have been on my travels and unfortunately have encountered two of the most lamentable examples I can remember.

The first was in the Old Vine, a smart Good Beer Guide listed pub-cum-restaurant facing the green in front of Winchester Cathedral. I suppose in a pub charging £3.50 for a pint and £13+ for main course meals, you perhaps shouldn’t expect too much quantity from a £5.95 “Traditional Ploughman’s”. But it was utterly pathetic – two rounds of sliced white bread cut into triangles, two thin slices of (admittedly good) cheese than can’t have come to even two ounces, a small bowl of chutney and a bit of salad. If the whole lot had been assembled as a cheese and pickle sandwich you would still have felt badly done to. A pub with obvious upmarket aspirations can surely do better, both in quantity and, with the bread, quality.

But it gets even worse. A few days later, in Tewkesbury, a famously picturesque market town at the northern tip of Gloucestershire, with a wealth of half-timbered buildings. One of those is the Berkeley Arms (pictured), a Wadworth’s pub that I have visited a number of times over the years. Ploughman’s Lunch, £4.95. I check whether it includes ham – apparently it does, so I ask for just cheese. I wait, and wait, and wait. A woman sitting nearby is served a cottage pie, which she sends back because it is lukewarm, which is hardly a good sign. I ask where my food is, and am assured it is on its way. Eventually, after a good half an hour, it arrives. Large slice of pork pie, no cheese whatsoever. “I asked for cheese”, I say. “I thought you said no cheese”. So it goes back, and five minutes later arrives with a few roughly-cut slices of low-quality Cheddar. But no bread. “Where’s the bread?” “You want bread?” – as if the very idea of asking for bread with a ploughman’s is bizarre. Two or three minutes later, that arrives, three pre-buttered slices of supermarket white. There are pickled onions, but no chutney or Branston. I eat some of it, but by this time am so annoyed and fed up I end up leaving about half.

Having said that, my pint of Henry’s IPA was fine. Apparently the pub is struggling because of the competition from the Wetherspoon’s over the road, but even so that is no excuse for a combination of poor food and dilatory service. What a shame to see a pub of which I have fond memories fallen so low. That was one of my worst experiences in some time in a pub I have actually chosen to visit (as opposed to on an organised pub crawl). You will never beat Spoons on price – so you have to compete on quality, character and service instead.

I’m normally a bit reluctant to name names, but in both cases these pubs richly deserve it.

I remember one occasion (although I’m not sure exactly where) when I got a ploughman’s consisting solely of crusty bread, cheese, pickles and butter, all in generous quantities. Nothing else whatsoever. Which, to my mind, is just as it should be.

As an antidote to the above, I did find good lunchtime snacks (not Ploughman’s) in the Eclipse Inn in Winchester and the unashamedly upmarket Three Cups in Stockbridge. The Eclipse, a tiny pub near the Old Vine, with a mediaeval half-timbered frontage and a 1930s-style interior with bench seating, I thought was a cracking little boozer.


  1. One teatime a couple of years ago I ordered a cheeseburger in a nice enough town centre pub in Basingstoke. It was about a fiver, so I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary, but what I received was rather strange.

    A stone, about the size of a beer mat, and sizzling-hot. A raw burger patty. A shotgass full of fetta cheese cubes, and a pitta bread.

    It was not only a deeply disturbing example of a cheeseburger, it was raw and I was clearly expected to cook it!!

    I went to complain to the landlord. Neither he nor his barmaid thought there was any problem. The landlord was also dressed as a pirate.

    I asked about his outfit and he said "Friday night be pirate night, aarrrrrr. A free pint to anyone dressed as a pirate on Fridays". There were perhaps 35 people in the pub and he was very much the only pirate.

    Further coversation with a fellow supping 6x in the corner made it clear that this new landlord had some out-there ideas! Indeed.

  2. I remember a cartoon in which a pub customer is complaining about his meal, to which the landlord replies, "But all the ploughmen round here eat beans on toast!"

  3. "I like beer. I like Cheese" (Horse Song, Ommadawn, Mike Oldfield, 1975)

    There, that dates me. However, I agree that a good ploughman's is the perfect pub meal. The last one I had was a stonker with lovely bread, nice pickle and an enormous lump of good Cheddar, so much so that I took some home to eat later. This was at the Neeld Arms, Grittleton, Wiltshire. The good ploughman's is still out there!

  4. Silly me, I thought pubs were about the beer. So they're all restaurants now are they and to be judged on their food?

    Strange world since 2007.

  5. Pubs have been doing a substantial food trade for many years before 2007. And am I not supposed to comment on any aspect of pubs other than beer?

  6. Simply the best piece you've ever written. The situation is so nad now, I'd say, that it's the norm for the Ploughman's to be below standard.

  7. Can I join you and Tyson on the committee for the campaign for ploughmans lunches? I care deeply about the cheese and bread quality but wish to ensure it is a campaign for something, not against and steer you away from campaigning against ham, pork pies and salad.

  8. The Newport Inn in Braishfield (not far from Winchester) still serves the classic ploughman's of cheese, crusty bread, butter and pickles for about £3. The place is a complete 1950's time warp.

  9. I notice the Mark Addy is back in the Beer Guide for the first time in years. If unchanged it's one of a handful of pubs, along with the Didsbury Oak and Lichfield's Queen Head, where you can just choose bread and cheeses or pates. This sort of food is ideal for beer-soaking and can be offered all day.

  10. Pate? Leberwurst?

    Good god man, pork pie is one thing but pate?

    It's a Ploughmans for gods sake, not a continental breakfast.

    Pate, indeed.

  11. Mudge, I know this is an old post, but it is the most accurate thing I've read in a long while. I hereby offer to shake you by the hand, my good sir.

    The one thing I would add is that the cheese must not only be of a high standard, but it must also be the right style of cheese, ie a hard English strong cows cheese. Not brie, goats or a white cheese like Wensleydale, all of which I have seen which fail the test and instead count as high standard bread and cheese.


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