A case of hard cheese

Cheese rolls. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Cheese rolls. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Are we in danger of losing an authentic southern snack? Prof Helen Leach tells Charmian Smith about the endangered real southern toasted cheese roll.

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 southern cookbooks.

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 bread.

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 dishes.

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 cheese roll.

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 Rex Cheese.

"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 rolls.

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.