The cheese roll may seem simple: it’s basically a slice of bread with a cheese-based filling, rolled and baked until it’s a little crunchy.
Yet this simple snack holds a special place in the hearts of many in the lower part of the South Island, which is more southerly New Zealandthe two main islands – or “Deep South”, as a region closer to Antarctica than the term Equator.
Margaret Peck remembered her first cheesecake. He is a teenager on the beach near Invercargill, almost at the tip of the South Island and New Zealand’s southernmost city – it’s also home to the world’s southernmost Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets.
Her husband, Mark Peck, also remembers the first experience. It happened after I was a kid from Kentucky.
“I’ve never had it before. And, ooohhh – it’s all good! I’m hooked, good and really!”
Decades later, there is a reason their memories are so vivid.
“Cheese rolls mean celebrations, events, gatherings, parties, fundraisers,” explains Donna Hamilton, who makes cheese buns at The Batch in Invercargill, which she owns with husband Gareth.
“It means people, family, and laughter. They are the main comfort food.”
Immigration and identity
Meadows filled with grazing cows are a common sight among the green hills of Southland, the southern part of the Deep South. Milk and cheese galore. But cows are not real animals New Zealand, and the cheese rolls were developed largely by European immigrants and their descendants.
According to emeritus professor Helen Leach, a specialist in food anthropology at the University of Otago at Dunedin (the largest city in the Deep South), the first recipe for a rolled version of cheese appeared in South Island cookbooks in the 1930s.
They gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, as sliced bread became more common in New Zealand, becoming a staple in school fundraising.
But cheese rolls are a distinctive regional dish. Leach’s research shows the first recipe for “real” cheese rolls with pre-cooked cheese filling did not appear in cookbooks in the more populous North Island until 1979. Even today, cheese rolls in North Island cafes are rare.
But the Peck family wanted to offer it in the capital when they opened Little Peckish in Wellington – at the base of the North Island – in 2009, after Mark Peck had finished his career in Parliament; his constituency is Invercargill.
“I’m a Southlander,” explains Margaret Peck, who grew up north of Invercargill near the town of Winton. “I want to have something that is part of my identity.”
However, there was an adjustment: at first, the customer ate cheese bread with a knife and fork. He insists the cheese rolls are eaten with your hands.
To the west of Invercargill is Riverton, a small town along an estuary formed by the meandering Aparima and Pourakino rivers.
This is where Cazna Gilder makes cheese rolls at The Crib. He said “southern sushi” – a cheese roll called, because “as popular as sushi” – is synonymous with regional identity.
“Cheese rolls are honest,” he explained. “That’s not pretentious. I guess it’s because we’re so down to earth.”
More than meets the eye
There are many variations of cheese roll.
“Traditions are passed down from generation to generation,” Hamilton said. “The children living abroad have been sent home to get the right recipe for making flatmates in London to overcome the homesickness.”
Mark Heffer, who makes cheese rolls at his cafe, Industri, in Invercargill, says that the “right” cheese roll requires several things: “[The bread has] it should be rolled up and not folded, lots of fresh cheese and onions, some kind of mayo to give it a creamy flavor, and we like to add a little sour cream and chopped parsley. Toasted but not too toasted, it should be golden brown and topped with butter. “
“You have to wash your hands and face after eating the right cheese roll,” he added.
However, some have a slightly different view.
One example is in northern Southland, beneath the snow-capped peaks of The Remarkables, in Rātā. Their cheese rolls are garnished with locally sourced preserved apricots, hazelnuts, truffle oil and honey from the southern rātā tree, which is found on the west coast of the South Island. Served as a main course, Fleur Caulton’s founder says it’s a popular dish at Queenstown restaurants.
“Everyone has their own roast version. We have our version of our cheese roll.”
Countryside as seen in areas where neighbors can leave their doors unlocked and penguins visit the beach, life changes like anywhere else. For example, the planned closure of an aluminum smelter by 2024 south of Invercargill at Tiwai Point – Southland’s largest employer – could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs.
Other changes are also taking place. New Zealand’s border closure amid the coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in domestic tourists, but there are concerns about what the absence of international visitors means in the future. Much of central Invercargill has also been destroyed. Rising from the rubble will be a business and shopping complex that can cost NZ $ 165 million (about US $ 120 million).
But cheese rolls continue to play an important role in the South End story. Rātā’s Caulton says “1,800 dozen” cheese rolls were created for fundraising at Queenstown Wakatipu Middle School last year, for example.
The morning of our interview, The Crib’s Gilder said he had made around 200 in anticipation of demand from visitors attending the Burt Munro Challenge motorbike competition, one of Southland’s biggest annual events.
“As long as anyone is in Southland, cheese rolls will live on forever,” says Industry’s Heffer.
Adds Hamilton: “Meeting people, friendship, support – right now, I think the world needs more cheese rolls.”
Ben Mack is a writer from North Plains, Oregon who lives in New Zealand. Her work has appeared in outlets including Vogue Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Newsweek. Rolled cheese is his favorite food.