A wrap on our cheese culture

The many faces of the southern cheese roll. PHOTOS: ODT FILES
The many faces of the southern cheese roll. PHOTOS: ODT FILES

Cheese rolls represent so much more than a delicious snack. They form part of our southern identity within a small country where specific regional foods are rare, writes HJ Kilkelly.

As Oscar Kightley once famously* said, if you want to start an argument at the bottom of the country, ask someone about cheese rolls. In 2012, esteemed professor Helen Leach spoke to cheese rolls being under threat from its northern cousin, "an entirely inferior breed" (her words) due largely to the arrogant laziness (my words) of just slapping grated cheese on bread and calling it a cheese roll.

Everyone* remembers the Outrage of 2015 when Tourism New Zealand left Southland off the "best cheese roll" round up; tempers flared and eventually Tourism New Zealand were forced to sheepishly edit their webpage. In 2018, Dunedin’s very own The Star outscooped national news outlets with their worrying discovery that white sandwich bread was endangered, forcing us all* to consider the very real threat of extinction of said bread, a key component in proper cheese rolls. Most recently, I felt the collective southern gasp ripple through the atmosphere when a gussied-up version featured on an episode of Celebrity MasterChef Australia. The forum pages were on fire.

Cheese rolls represent so much more than a delicious snack. They form part of our southern identity within a small country where specific regional foods are rare. More times than I care to count, a tray of cheese rolls has made its way north in my hand luggage, destined to nestle comfortably in the freezer for when I felt like a slice (roll?) of home, but without the effort of making bulk. They represent community and reaching for collective goals; how many of us have spent hours in a kitchen with teammates rolling dozens and dozens of cheese rolls for a fundraiser? Cheese rolls are comforting, warm and simple.

The cheese roll has risen back to top of mind lately, as various friends have been arriving in Dunedin for the summer holidays; having reached the one year back on home ground mark and all things being what they are, the first question I’m generally asked is where to find the best.

Something about introducing people from Not Around These Parts to cheese rolls feels much safer on your own turf, but it’s still not quite as simple as all that. For starters, are we talking about small cheese rolls, the nouveau larger style cheese rolls, the dreaded "snail" cheese rolls, fancy restaurant style cheese rolls ...?

Once you get past the shape, there’s still more to consider — critical factors such as consistency, how it’s toasted, timing of buttering, filling to bread ratio, crusts versus no crusts, the ingredients, modern additions; not all are created equal.

What does it really come down to though? Integrity. The bread, regardless of size, shape or colour, needs to be able to hold together the filling in such a way that when lifted off the plate the roll doesn’t bend, droop or disintegrate. While a touch of ooze is essential, the cheese-y filling needs to retain enough viscosity that it stays part of the roll, avoiding the transition to a breadless, shirt-ruining waterfall.

In a time when New Zealand, anecdotally, is the most divided it’s been since the 1981 Springbok Tour, I think we should all be able to agree at least on that.

A deep dive of today’s Tourism New Zealand website failed to bring up anything about cheese rolls; perhaps the 2015 sting was too much. A search on Tourism NZ’s offshoot 100% Pure New Zealand yields 138 "cheese roll" based results, but with very little actual substance; you can pay someone five hundred odd bucks to take you on a tour that may include cheese rolls, but it seems, these days, they don’t get their own page on the site. Too contentious, perhaps.

During the years living Not Here, curious northerners would often ask me to make cheese rolls for a special occasion. Generally, I’d flat out refuse, with some rebuff that anyone north of the Waitaki River was not deserving of them. This hard-line approach was formed by a fierce regional pride that made me hyper protective of the tasty beasts, lest someone bust out the refrain of "it’s just cheese and bread". See above; we know exactly where this kind of casual disregard leads. Potential Extinction.



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