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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.
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.
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.