Now and then

For many people one of the delights of travelling in the UK is to stop in the middle of the day for a pub lunch.  Once there you can enjoy the traditional ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’ of bread, beer, cheese and a pickled gherkin.  Well, that’s the basic menu:  more upmarket pubs will add grapes, a pickled onion, sliced ham, and a boiled egg. Then there’s the Ploughman’s Lunch deluxe, with all the foregoing, together with pork pie and pâté, and sometimes the pork pie will be replaced by a veal, ham and egg pie!  Ever fussy, my preferred version was bread, cheese, scotch egg, dried apricots, dried muscatels, a few slices of apple, and, yes, a glass of red wine!!

The key word in this is ‘traditional’.  The idea of a Ploughman’s Lunch was “first promoted by the Milk Marketing Board in the 1960s as part of a campaign to promote the sales of cheese, especially in pubs. However, the concept of the combination of ingredients is much older.  If we journey back slightly further to an edition of a magazine published by the Brewers’ Society called ‘A Monthly Bulletin’ (dated July 1956), we get this superb quote describing the activities of a group called the Cheese Bureau, which it says “exists for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and, as a corollary, the public house lunch of bread, beer, cheese and pickle. This traditional combination was broken by rationing; the Cheese Bureau hopes, by demonstrating the natural affinity of the two parties, to effect a remarriage”.” [i]

It’s hard to know what to think about this.  I am sure ploughmen had lunch (although I suspect it was usually eaten out in the fields).  It is more than likely such a lunch might well have comprised bread, quite often accompanied by some cheese (cheddar cheese?), and certainly a glass of ale.  A pickle?  That sounds like a modern addition designed to ensure that one pint of beer would not be enough, and there are rumours that Watney’s Brewery came up with the idea of including the pickle.  However, it was just as likely some ploughmen would have had a cold pie (a shepherd’s pie?) from time to time.  Would they eat cheese and bread every day?  I don’t think so.  Is the Ploughman’s Lunch a traditional meal updated, or a modern meal given a false history?

At the other extreme, chef Heston Blumenthal has certainly reached back into the past.  He first achieved fame with The Fat Duck, an innovative restaurant in Berkshire, and the fastest to obtain the coveted three Michelin stars in the UK.  However, it was Dinner by Blumenthal that grabbed my attention, as it specialises in offering carefully research dishes from as far back as the 14th Century.  The earliest items on the menu include Rice & Flesh (c.1390), with saffron, calf tail & red wine; Frumenty (c.1390) with grilled octopus, spelt, smoked sea broth, pickled dulse & lovage; and Sambocade (c.1390), with goat’s milk cheesecake, elderflower & apple, pickled blackberries & smoked candied walnuts.  The most modern on the menu is Powdered Duck Breast (c.1850), with braised & grilled red cabbage, spiced umbles & pickled cherries.

You aren’t familiar with dulse, umbles and lovage?  Dear me; shame on you.  I let you do some research on those for yourself!

Having eaten a Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, I can tell you the meal was stunning.  No ploughman’s lunch this: the food was truly traditional, and simply scrumptious.  Nothing there was new described as old, this was the other way around, and what was old had become new again.  Above all, Heston Blumenthal acknowledges and promotes the persistence of what was old and special.  Traditional meals, like traditional crafts, can be the source of great enjoyment.

Some old food traditions can get diners into trouble.  The ortolan is a bunting, similar to a finch:  the bird grows to about six inches in length, and weights under an ounce.  In the autumn, they fly south, over the Mediterranean, to winter in North Africa.  In the past they were caught in nets, kept in the dark, where they gorged themselves on millet seed or other grains.  When nicely plump, they were cooked for a few minutes, plucked, and then eaten whole, the beak and larger bones being pulled by the diner out from his (or her) mouth as they were digested.  It was such a popular gourmet dish that the bird’s French population dropped dangerously low, leading to laws restricting its appearance on the menu in 1999.  Ortolan hunting was banned in France in 1999, but the law was poorly enforced, and it is thought that up to 50,000 ortolans are killed each year.

In 2007, the pressure from France’s League for Protection of Birds and the EU resulted in the French government promising to enforce the EU directive protecting the ortolan.[ii]  Little has changed, however, and diners, with a napkin over their head are still to be seen.  The purpose of the napkin is unclear. Some claim it is to retain the maximum aroma to accompany the flavour as they consume the entire bird; others have stated “Tradition dictates that this is to shield – from God’s eyes – the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act”, and yet others have suggested the towel hides the consumers spitting out bones.[iii]  Perhaps they are simply trying to hide from the gendarmerie!

This isn’t about the old becoming new again, of course.  This is simply a rather gruesome example of how the old never went away!

All that has to lead me on to Harris Tweed; but not the irrepressible spy from my childhood, however.  There was a British comic strip series, and its hero, Harris Tweed, was a Special Agent, appearing in The Eagle from 1950 to 1962. He was a monocle wearing, rotund, bumbling secret agent, who, with his far more capable boy assistant, known as “Boy”, was constantly getting into trouble while, amazingly, somehow managing to make good in the end.  No, not that Harris Tweed, much as I had enjoyed his adventures. No, this is about his jacket!

Harris Tweed is a fabric, made in the Outer Hebrides by entirely manual processes. In the original approach to manufacturing, back in the 19th Century, wool was washed in soft, peaty water before being coloured with dyes from local plants and lichens.  It was then processed and spun, before being hand woven by the crofters in their cottages. Traditional island tweed was characterized by the flecks of colour achieved through this use of the vegetable dyes, several of which gave the fabric its distinctive deep red- or purple-brown or rusty orange colour.  In the middle of the 19th Century, the marketing potential and high quality of the tweed cloth produced locally by two sisters from the village of Strond was noticed.  In 1846, they were commissioned to weave lengths of tweed and the finished fabric was made up into jackets deemed particularly suitable for an outdoor lifestyle.  Soon merchants from Edinburgh to London were supplying the privileged classes with hand-woven Harris Tweed.

By 1909, Harris Tweed had a registered trademark, and today the following definition of genuine Harris Tweed has become statutory: “Harris Tweed means a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”.  Today, every 50 metres of Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the Orb Mark. [iv]  Benbecula, purtenances, this is serious stuff!

Since I am writing about the persistence of things from the past, it may be no surprise for you to learn I have owned three Harris Tweed jackets over the years, and two are still going strong, together with one lookalike which is sufficiently satisfying I cling on to it still!  I fell in love with my first jacket long before I knew about the source of the material.  Once wool from the mainland and the islands is dyed and blended, it is spun in one of the three mills in the Outer Hebrides.  The yarn is then delivered to be hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver’s home.  The result is that no batch of woven cloth is quite the same as another.  I favour the dark brown and blue colours, and I love the slightly fibrously feel of the cloth.

Are the jackets the same as they have ever been?  Not all of them, by any means.  I checked on the Brooks Brothers website the other day, and they offer “a four-pocket hunting jacket, hats, wingtip sneakers and field boots”. [v]  All this as well as a traditional jacket, a briefcase, and boots.  Briefcase?  Boots?  Wingtip sneakers??  No, not the same as they used to be.

What was old has become new again.  Heston Blumenthal has stuck to the original recipes.  Harris Tweed has stuck to individually woven cloth, but, unlike a meal, the cloth can be used in so many different ways.  Publicity suggests the output of Harris Tweed continues to grow:  that may be so, but I have to tell you my traditional source of jackets dried up, and I was lucky to find a store in the Cotswolds two years ago with old-style jackets still in stock.  Snapped one up, even if it’s a little large:  it makes a great winter coat, and, hard to explain, it just feels right!

In technology, it is even harder to find examples of where old is new again.  Fountain pens still survive in a world of ‘biro’s’ and felt-tipped pens, but only just.  I recently read that old-style and decidedly basic mobile flip phones are making a comeback as a fashion item (after years when owning one suggested you were involved in some kind of criminal activity).  That’s all fine, but now it’s time to get serious.  Meals, jackets, the real story is about cars.  Although it makes no sense at all to me, I have learnt that a significant part of the adult population of western countries is passionately in love with ‘classic cars’ (the majority of these romantics are men). [vi]  Once I started to look into the world of restoring old cars, I quickly discovered this was inhabited by fanatics, ideologues, and obsessionals, whose interests ranged from undertaking ‘authentic restorations’ (is that an oxymoron?), to building new cars masquerading as old.

At one extreme are the diehard restorers, devoted to recreaing a car indistinguishable from the way it was eighty or more years ago.  I am sure you know what I mean.  The entrance to the RACV Club in Melbourne often has such a classic on show.  These cars are a labour of love, requiring time, patience, skill and of course, money:  the average classic car restoration takes least 1,000 hours to complete, and the costs might start at $25,000, but often go over $100,000.

And for all that work, the restorer will be thrown into arguments about materials and techniques, ensuring fidelity to the original.  More than that.  One debate that rages in the world of classic cars is whether to restore a car to its original condition or add your own flair and personality to the mix.  “Restoration purists would argue that classic cars should be bought back to the condition they were in when rolling off the production line, with everything from the gear stick to the exhaust tailpipe refashioned to resemble the original component.  But, while it’s true absolute originality will fetch a higher price when it comes to selling the car on, we think it’s better to go with your gut and inject personal touches as you go. The car should be modified to please you, not the next buyer, so don’t be afraid to choose the colours and design choices you like over those pre-assigned by the car’s original appearance.”[vii]

At the other extreme, many feel there that a classic car, even if has been lovingly restored, can be ‘unpredictable, thirsty, and a handful’.  Old technologies often fail.  However, it seems there is a small but growing group of specialist car manufacturers who are taking some of the most iconic cars ever built and rebuilding them as modern vehicles. With modern engineering, “they offer everything you’d want from a classic, and nothing you don’t. The bad brakes, clogged carburetors, mysterious leaks, electrical gremlins, and problems negotiating with the quirks of a half-century old machine disappear, and what you get instead is the Hollywood version of a classic car: all the show, all the go, and none of the headaches.”

One example is Singer Vehicle Design.  Their cars may look like 1965-1973 “long hood” Porsche 911s, but they are as up to date as one in a Porsche dealership.  “A 911 is stripped down to its frame, and aside from the engine, it’s all new. The standard engine offered is a rebuilt Porsche 3.6 liter flat six, but it is assembled by hand to put out 370 horsepower, creating what could be the best hot-rodded Porsche engine ever built … [its] impressive 370 horsepower – more than a modern water-cooled Porsche 911Carerra.”  They add a hand-built ultra-lightweight carbon fiber body, an active rear spoiler, and an interior with a beautiful period-correct 1970s luxe look: “these classics reimagined by Singer are a love letter to the company’s colorful past.”

Wow!  After all that, I’m getting hungry.  Perhaps I should drive in to London in my Singer Porsche 911, leave the Harris Tweed jacket in the car, and settle down to a good meal at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, courtesy of Heston Blumenthal.  Something sweet to end the meal?  How about Raspberry Tart (c.1800), comprising almond & olive oil cake, lovage, Jersey cream, raspberry & verbena sorbet, accompanied by Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830), with salted butter caramel, pear & malted yeast syrup?  Something old, now and then, can be a stunning and unexpected delight, right now.  Well, maybe just now and then!


[i] This quote comes from the blog of the admirably named Pong Cheese, a UK promoter of fine cheese: <>

[ii] The directive is very clear: <>

[iii] <>

[iv] Yes, once more Wikipedia is invaluable as a source: <

[v] <>

[vi] Why would you want an old, unreliable, expensive to maintain car, when you can have a modern and reliable Kia?

[vii] <>