Are we in danger of losing an authentic southern
snack? Prof Helen Leach tells Charmian Smith about the
endangered real southern toasted cheese roll.
Cheese rolls. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Most people in the South love a traditional toasted cheese
roll. Those are the ones with the savoury, precooked filling
oozing piping hot from either end.
They've been a popular snack in tearooms, cafés and milk bars
at this end of the country for more than 60 years and
numerous recipes for making them at home are found in
They are as familiar as the crib and as essential as a cup of
tea. However, according to Prof Helen Leach, their future is
far from assured.
The retired University of Otago anthropologist says the
southern delicacy is under threat from its northern cousin -
an entirely inferior breed.
Toasted cheese rolls, as known in the South, are virtually
unknown in the North Island, either in community cookbooks or
in cafés, says Prof Leach.
North of the Cook Strait the historical record stretches, for
the most part, to no more than grated cheese with perhaps a
little Marmite or Vegemite toasted in the single slice of
None of which has needed to concern the southern gourmet very
much, until now.
On a recent trip to Southland and in visits to local cafés,
Prof Leach says she has found that, sadly, the northern
variety seems to be taking over down here.
The cause appears to have less to do with any North Island
imperialism, and more to do with the extra work involved in
making the real thing.
In the 1950s and '60s most cafés, tearooms and milk bars in
this part of the country would make their own precooked
cheese filling, store it in the fridge, and each day make up
trays of cheese rolls by spreading the filling on sliced
white bread, rolling them up and cutting off the crusts.
They would be covered with a damp muslin cloth and when an
order came in the roll would be put in a commercial toaster
to brown, then spread with butter and served.
The popularity of toasted cheese rolls coincided with the
growing availability of sliced bread in the 1950s, which made
them easier to make, Prof Leach says.
Toasted cheese rolls were also cooked at home, as is obvious
from the 140 recipes for the savoury filling or rolls that
Prof Leach and Raelene Inglis, also of the University of
Otago anthropology department, have found in mostly southern
community cookbooks from the 1930s to the 1990s.
They are usually listed under savouries or lunch and tea
A recipe for "rat traps", a toasted cheese roll with a
precooked filling, appeared in a 1935 issue of Truth.
The name is a play on "mouse traps", a common name for cheese
on toast, often with Vegemite or Marmite, and Prof Leach
thinks the rolled shape refers to the cylindrical rat traps
that were then available.
She'd like to see the name adopted for the southern toasted
The earliest cookbook recipe the University of Otago
researchers have come across was in the 1951 Roslyn
Presbyterian Church's Jubilee Cookery Book.
Similar recipes for variations on precooked cheese roll
fillings have been found in many community cookbooks from
Christchurch south, but the first North Island book to
include the recipe was in Wellington in 1979.
A Taranaki book followed in 1982. It marks a real divide
between northern and southern cookbooks, she says.
The researchers have identified three basic recipes for the
savoury cheese filling. The first, according to Prof Leach,
developed in the 1920s as a general-purpose spread or filling
for tartlets and savouries.
It was inspired by a product made in Australia called Rex
Cheese, that came in tins.
"Characteristically, New Zealand housewives always thought
they could imitate something that was nice, the family liked,
but cost money. So you find recipes for homemade versions of
Worcestershire sauce, Kahlua, Baileys, Bermaline bread, and
"There are themes in food: people invent or try to copy
something and if they like it, they are happy to shift its
use from one category to another, from patties and pies and
sandwiches to toasted cheese rolls."
Rex Cheese was obviously spicy and had more flavour than
bland processed cheese because the imitation recipes include
mustard, vinegar and tasty cheese, Prof Leach says.
This seems to be the original filling used in toasted cheese
The second recipe Prof Leach knows of for a savoury cheese
mixture includes onion, which was cooked either in milk or
butter, or sometimes water, mixed with tasty cheese and
thickened, often with flour or cornflour.
An early form of this recipe (which includes an egg instead
of milk) was published in Aunt Daisy's Cookery Book No
5 in 1943, and it appears in 1962 in Our Favourite
Recipes, by the Riverton Catholic Women's League, as a
filling for buttered bread cases in patty pans.
In the 1976 Otago Potters' Group Cook Book a similar
recipe was called "cheese mixture for rolls".
A convenience form of this recipe, using dried onion soup
mix, condensed or evaporated milk or reduced cream and
varying amounts of cheese became popular.
A version appeared in 1972 in the Wanaka Improvement
Society's Souvenir Recipe Book.
If this sort of cheese-roll filling had been popular
nationwide, Prof Leach says she would have expected to find
recipes on product wrappers or pamphlets from food
manufacturers such as Nestlé or Maggi, which produced dried
onion soup and reduced milk and cream.