Cheese rolls: How a humble snack grew to become a signature New Zealand meals

Wellington, New Zealand (CNN) – A cheese bun may seem simple: it’s basically a slice of bread with a cheese filling that’s rolled up and toasted until it’s slightly crispy.

However, these humble snacks hold a special place in the hearts of many people at the foot of the South Island, the more southerly of New Zealand’s two main islands – or “Deep South” as the region is sometimes called closer to Antarctica than the equator.

Margaret Peck remembers her first roll of cheese. She was a teenager on the beach near Invercargill, almost at the end of the South Island and New Zealand’s southernmost town – this is also where the southernmost Starbucks and McDonald’s branches are located.

Her husband Mark Peck also remembers his first. It came after I arrived from Kentucky as a kid.

“I had never had them before. And, ooohhh – they were good! I was addicted to them, really!”

Decades later, there’s a reason her memories are so clear.

“The cheese roll means celebrations, events, gatherings, homecoming, fundraisers,” explains Donna Hamilton, who makes cheese rolls at The Batch in Invercargill, which she and husband Gareth owns.

“It means people, family and laughter. They are the ultimate in comfort food.”

Immigration and identity

Pastures full of grazing cows are a common sight in the rolling green hills of Southland, the southern part of the deep south. Milk and cheese are abundant. But cows are not native to New Zealand, and cheese rolls were mainly developed by European immigrants and their descendants.According to Professor Emeritus Helen Leach, a specialist in food anthropology at the University of Otago in Dunedin (the largest city in the deep south), the first recipes for a version of cheese buns appeared in the South Island cookbooks in the 1930s.

They grew in popularity in the 1950s and 60s when sliced ​​bread became more common in New Zealand and became a staple of school fundraisers.

Cheese rolls, however, are a decidedly regional cuisine. Leach’s research shows that the first recipe for an “authentic” cheese roll with a pre-cooked cheese filling did not appear in a cookbook on the more populous North Island until 1979. Even now, it’s uncommon to find cheese rolls in cafes in the North Island.

However, the Pecks wanted to offer them in the capital when they opened Little Peckish in Wellington – at the foot of the North Island – in 2009 after Mark Peck retired from a career in Parliament. his constituency was Invercargill.

“I’m a southerner,” explains Margaret Peck, who grew up north of Invercargill near the town of Winton. “I wanted something that was part of my identity.”

However, there was an adjustment: first the guests ate cheese rolls with a knife and fork. She is relentless Cheese rolls are eaten with your hands.

To the west of Invercargill is Riverton, a small town on an estuary formed by the meandering Aparima and Pourakino Rivers.

Here Cazna Gilder makes cheese rolls at The Crib. She says “Mediterranean sushi” – as cheese rolls are sometimes called because they are “as popular as sushi” – is a synonym for regional identity.

“A cheese roll is honest,” she explains. “It’s not presumptuous. I think it’s because we’re so down to earth.”

There’s more to it than that

There are many variations on a cheese roll.

“Traditions are passed on from generation to generation,” says Hamilton. “Abroad children sent home the right recipe to help London roommates overcome their homesickness.”

Mark Heffer, who makes cheese rolls in his Café Industry in Invercargill, says that a “real” cheese roll needs a few things: “[The bread has] I need to be rolled and not folded, lots of cheese and fresh red onions, some kind of mayo to give it that creamy taste, and we like to add a little bit of sour cream and chopped parsley. Toasted but not too roasted, it must be golden brown and topped with butter whips. “

“As long as there are people in Southland, the cheese roll will live on forever,” says Mark Heffer from Industry.

Brandon Todd

“You should have to wash your hands and face after eating a proper roll of cheese,” he adds.

However, some have a slightly different attitude.

An example is north of Southland, below the snow-capped peaks of the Remarkables in Rātā. Their cheese rolls are garnished with preserved apricots, hazelnuts, truffle oil and honey from the southern Rātā tree on the west coast of the South Island. Founder Fleur Caulton, which is served as an appetizer, says they are a popular dish at Queenstown Restaurant.

“Everyone has their version of a roast. We have our version of a cheese bun.”

Roll on

Bucolic, as it may seem in an area where neighbors leave doors unlocked and penguins can visit beaches. Life is changing like anywhere else. For example, the planned closure of the aluminum smelter south of Invercargill at Tiwai Point – Southland’s largest employer – in 2024 could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Other changes are also underway. The closure of New Zealand’s borders amid the coronavirus pandemic has seen an increase in local tourists, but there are concerns about what the absence of international visitors could mean for the future. Large parts of the central Invercargill were also demolished. A business and shopping complex will emerge from the rubble that could cost NZ $ 165 million (approximately US $ 120 million).

But cheese rolls continue to play an important role in the history of the deep south. For example, according to Rātā’s Caulton, “1,800 dozen” cheese rolls were made for a fundraiser at Wakatipu High School in Queenstown last year.

On the morning of our interview, The Crib’s Gilder said she made about 200 in anticipation of demand from visitors to the Burt Munro Challenge motorcycle competition, one of the largest annual events in Southland.

“As long as there are people in Southland, the cheese roll will live on forever,” says Heffer from Industry.

Hamilton adds, “The gathering, the camaraderie, the support – right now I would say the world needs more cheese rolls.”

Ben Mack is a New Zealand-based writer from North Plains, Oregon. His work has been published in Vogue Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald and Newsweek, among others. Cheese rolls are his favorite food.

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