A ploughman's lunch is a platter of food which contains, at a minimum, bread, cheese, and pickled vegetables, typically onions. Usually other additions such as a green salad are included, along with apples, pickled eggs and beetroot, or even things like pate. The concept is closely associated with British cuisine, especially rural British food. Many British pubs offer ploughman's lunch on their menus, although it can also easily be prepared at home.
The name and ingredients of the ploughman's lunch are meant to evoke a bygone era, when a ploughman would have packed his lunch to the field so that it would be ready to hand when he wanted to take a break. Clearly, a cold lunch would have been the most suitable lunch for a ploughman, since it will keep while he works, and many of the classic ingredients in the lunch are also relatively stable at room temperature for several hours. Bread is a simple, filling meal component which is a traditional addition to lunches all around the world. Cheese would also have been readily available, since small local dairies would have produced it, and vegetables could be easily obtained in the ploughman's garden.
Unfortunately for those who think of the ploughman's lunch as a traditional British food, it appears to have arisen during a cheese marketing campaign in the 1960s. While ploughmen and other workers certainly did have cold lunches with very similar ingredients, they probably did not refer to the meal as a “ploughman's lunch.” Bread, cheese, and beer is a common pairing for a simple but filling lunch, of course, but curiously enough no record of a “ploughman's lunch” can be found before the mid 1960s.
The ingredients in a ploughman's lunch tend to balance each other out rather nicely, especially when paired with beer. A more complex plate might pair several kinds of cheese, which are cut with bread and the green salad so that they do not taste so heavy. Ingredients like pickles and onions are also common fare in pubs, since they tend to go well with alcohol. An apple or similar fruit provides a palate cleansing, clean finish.
The composition of a ploughman's lunch is so simple that the food can be easily adjusted to meet varying tastes. Many promoters of locally produced food like to use fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables in a ploughman's lucnh, along with locally produced cheeses and breads. The pickled vegetables, widely believed to be a very important element, may also be made from local ingredients.