There they are, for sale in bulk, at the Otago Farmers Market - the famous cheese roll. Take them home, for now or for the freezer. Perfect for morning or afternoon snacks, and school lunches.
But what's the story behind this little tremendous warm treat, sometimes called southland sushi, known widely in the south, less so in the north....
For those unfamiliar, a cheese roll is created by covering a slice of bread in a prepared filling, mostly cheese, and then rolling it into a tube shape before toasting. And so, sometimes it's called a cheese roll-up.
South, not north
It's a really popular food in Otago and Southland, commonly featuring on cafe menus and a great offering as a community fundraiser. But it's equally really uncommon to see the cheese roll on a North Island cafe menu. Some say the food is still little known north of the Waitaki River.
So you could say the cheese roll is one of very few recipes specific to one of New Zealand's main islands, but not the other. (Come to think of it, it's tricky to think of any other like that.....)
A long history
We like the story that the first cheese rolls were made by a Dorothy McInnes, way back in 1912.
Apparently, Dorothy was struggling to put something on the table for her 12 children while her husband was out looking for work. She sliced bread very thinly, mixed cheese, some left-over soup and an egg together, and spread this over the bread. She then decided to roll them up, so she could cook them all at once. And there the cheese roll story all began. Our thanks to Dorothy. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
Written recipes for the cheese roll date from the 1930s, with the earliest being in the New Zealand Truth newspaper, from 1935. But the popularity seems to have taken off once sliced bread became widely available. That was the 1950s.
And it’s nice to think that the earliest known cookbook recipe for the roll dates from Dunedin's Roslyn Church Jubilee Cookery Book in 1951. A recorded recipe from nearly 70 years ago….
And how to make the very best
It’s agreed that a quality cheese roll is a thin slice of bread sprinkled with cheese and a little onion, rolled up and grilled: the classic kiwi snack. But debate happens at the edges.
Some say grated cheese, some say sliced. Some say only white bread, some say wholemeal can work. Some say chopped onion, some say onion soup mix. Some say condensed milk, some say evaporated. Some say remove the crusts, some say leave them on. Some say add mustard, parsley, whatever takes your fancy on the day you’re making them.
But a good trick, hard to argue with, is to heat the mixture before spreading it on, so the cheese melts and the flavours have a chance to infuse. Delicious.
Time to try….
Taking all those factors, and a combination of some favourite New Zealand artisan products, we enjoyed our own version of the delicious cheese roll morning snack - Southland’s Tuturau Organic Dairy’s Mataura Tasty Cheddar, grated and mixed with The Herb and Spice Mill’s Dill and Wild Onion dip and Zany Zeus creme fraiche. Heated, then spread onto sliced bread, rolled up and grilled. We left one crust on….
What a treat. And our thanks, as ever, to all those who provided local input for this roll.