Having grown up down south, it took me a long time to realise that other parts of New Zealand don’t know what cheese rolls are, which is so very, very sad. There have been at least two, possibly three, conversations during morning tea at Te Ara where the few of us who grew up south of the Waitaki (or at least went to university there) have tried to explain the delights of cheese rolls to those unfortunates who have never tasted them. The others haven’t seemed convinced by our passion, and unfortunately we never managed to provide any for tasting purposes, although we threatened to, which might explain why they’re still not mentioned in Te Ara.
If you too have no idea what I am talking about, then let me explain. Cheese rolls are made from thin white bread, which is spread with a mix of tasty cheese, Maggi onion mix and evaporated milk, then rolled up, spread with butter and grilled. Well, that’s my memory of them – there are a few alternatives out there, which include an actual onion or mustard and vinegar rather than the Maggi. (You can watch a video here on how to make them if you’re interested.)
When I was growing up in Dunedin you could still buy them from a tea shop, or the department store tearooms or the school tuck shop, and they were a cheap, warm and filling food. They also came frozen in large plastic bags, usually as part of a fundraising exercise. If you grew up in a health-conscious household like I did, eating brown bread, margarine and trim milk, cheese rolls were not only cheap, warm and filling, but also quite possibly the food the devil supped on in hell, and therefore totally irresistible.
Recently I have run into ‘cheese rolls’ again – but cheese rolls that have had a makeover. One time was when I stopped at a café in Middlemarch last winter (I know, cafés, Middlemarch – the Otago Central Rail Trail has really transformed some bits of rural Otago) and was presented with a very large wholemeal bread version (pictured above). It tasted great – but was not a cheese roll as we knew it.
The second time was more recently, at Arthur’s, a café on Cuba St in Wellington which serves ‘Dunedin cheese rolls’. I was there with two other former Dunedinites, so of course we had to try them. Sadly neither were these the cheese rolls of memory, although they looked similar. In this case the filling had become more sophisticated – like a gruyere fondue mix – and it was served with chutney! While we ate them all (in seconds), we all agreed that, once again, they were not the cheese rolls of old.
However, all is not lost – recently a plate of authentic cheese rolls was circulating at our Ministry, courtesy of the lovely Ashley, and a shared lunch that got cancelled. A good southern lass, Ashley made her cheese rolls as mother made them (well, not my mother), and I ate mine far too fast to photograph it.
It is not just the (strange) southern people who have worked on Te Ara who have this obsession – Labour MP Clare Curran wrote an Ode to the Cheese Roll; the Riverton Art Centre produced an exhibition, Toasting the Cheese Roll; Southland radio hosts James and Rachel wrote a song about them; at one time Lynda Topp had 6 dozen in the freezer; and Professor Helen Leach, along with researcher Raelene Inglis, even published an article on them, ‘Toasted cheese rolls – a regional specialty in New Zealand’.
I’m not sure what it says about our nation, if anything, when one of the few regional food specialities we seem to have is white bread & cheese (dressed pies arguably being another), but perhaps if the Mainland ever secedes from the rest of the country they could include the cheese roll as part of their flag – an image of melted cheese flapping in a southerly has a certain mad logic to it.