A view from Dave Trott: History is the future
A view from Dave Trott

A view from Dave Trott: History is the future

For me, one of the reassuring things about the English pub is the ploughman’s lunch.

The pub food traditionally served in country pubs.

Just what a farmer needed after the thirsty work of driving Shire horses up and down a furrowed field all day.

A thick slab of local cheese on a hunk of fresh bread washed down with a pint of draught ale.

No wonder it’s been a tradition in our country pubs for centuries.

Except it hasn’t.

It was invented by a marketing department in 1960.

The ploughman’s lunch never existed.

What actually happened was that the Milk Marketing Board wanted to increase sales of cheese.

There weren’t lots of fancy cheeses back then, just Cheddar.

They wondered how to get people to eat more of this basic cheese.

At lunchtime, most people went to the pub.

So the opportunity was obviously to sell cheese in pubs.

But pubs were for drinking, they didn’t have kitchens.

So how could they sell Cheddar cheese in a place mainly used for drinking and in a way that didn’t need preparation?

How could they make a virtue of a necessity?

How to turn plain old bread and cheese into something appetising?

The Milk Marketing Board’s agency was J Walter Thompson.

Between them, they decided they had to make it the perfect partner for a pint of beer.

So they reinvented the past.

They repackaged a chunk of bread and cheese and a pint of beer as the ploughman’s lunch.

The traditional farmer’s meal.

Then it didn’t seem dull, unappetising and boring any more.

As far as anyone knew, it was part of the countryside tradition.

And they printed 5,000 cards to stand on bar tops in pubs.

Announcing that this pub now served the traditional ploughman’s lunch: bread, cheese and a pint of ale.

And, gradually, it caught on all over the country.

Bread and cheese came to be referred to as a ploughman’s lunch.

And it became a respectable thing to eat.

Because it was from the country, it was wholesome and healthy.

And, over time, the ploughman’s lunch dispensed with the pint of beer.

The cheese and the bread were seen as the central items.

The ploughman’s lunch became part of traditional English cuisine.

Alongside Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs, steak and kidney pie, and fish and chips.

And people began adding to the basic ingredients: butter, pickles, celery, apple, even grapes.

Now celebrity chefs offer their own take on this tradition: Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Directions for making the most authentic artisanal bread, where to source the ideal cheese, the perfect accompanying relish.

The ploughman’s lunch is now part of the national memory.

This is a great lesson for those of us working in mass media.

History isn’t cast in stone, we don’t have to be reverential about it.

We can invent history.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three