We like cheese rolls. We’ve said as much before. For our North Island brothers and sisters, this may seem a little weird. For those from overseas, you’re probably thinking about a round bread bun with a slice of cheese put in it. Which means we have some explaining to do.
There are many misconceptions about the humble cheese roll. It is often wrongly maligned, usually misunderstood and nearly always cooked incorrectly by anyone using a recipe from a book or the internet. For real cheese roll recipes are not bound by pen and paper...or URLs and hyperlinks. Real cheese roll recipes are passed down from generation to generation and muttered in hushed words on a deathbed from parent to the first born. They exist only in the minds of the worthy.
First, we need to address a few things around the history of the cheese roll. For the passing of time has not blessed the world with an accurate record of the greatest snack known to mankind. If you look up cheese rolls on Wikipedia, it hints at similarities to Welsh rarebit. This is like saying Ford and Holden are the same as they each have 4 wheels. And if anyone dares to link the cheese roll to Raclette, then you are within your rights to launch an egg at their head* (ok, don’t. Unless you really want to. *Cloke can accept no responsibility...blah, blah, blah).
The same Wikipedia page also notes one of the first recipes for the cheese roll involved the use of a spicy Australian cheese. We can only assume the same shadowy group that claimed Pharlap, Crowded House and the Pavlova are behind this seed sowing start of a culture grab. Keep your sandpapered hands off it Aussies. Don’t you tamper with our heritage.
But the worst bit of misinformation comes from our own Tourism New Zealand. On the media section of their website they state the cheese roll as being a “simple play on croque monsieur”. They need to have a word with themselves for that slight. Then go stand in the corner.
Anyway, back to the history. The generally accepted view is the cheese roll first made an appearance in the mainstream back in the 1930’s, courtesy of the New Zealand Truth newspaper. We just don’t know if that’s a lie or not though.
There is a nice story about a lady by the name of Dorothy who was running low on cash owing to her 12 hungry children, leading her to create the cheese roll. A brood that size would certainly necessitate the need for culinary prudence. Full respect to Dorothy if this is indeed ground zero for the great cheese roll movement.
However, we believe* there is an earlier, as yet untold chapter in the history of our food hero. The year is 1867. It’s the era of the steam train. Bluff is a port of economic importance and there is a need to move cargo quickly and efficiently from the docked cargo ships to the sprawling metropolis that is early Invercargill. Thus, on the 5th February 1867, the 27km long Main South Line was opened. Whilst the railway was to be widely noted to be a bit of a flop, owing to it bankrupting the local council, it did herald an accidental and unintentional food victory.
Enter young Douglas Dolittle. Douglas was aged just 12 years old at the time and little did he know about the part he was about to play in history. You see, young Douglas was to join his Dad at work that day. Dolittle Senior was a stoker, the chap responsible for hauling coal into the furnace to make the train move.
Mrs Doolittle sent young Douglas with a pack up that day for smoko. The pack up consisted of cheese sandwiches and some soup. Onion soup to be exact. The details of what happened next are a little hazy but what we do know is this...young Douglas got bored watching his old man and set his lunch down by the furnace so he could explore the train. When he returned he found the intense heat had melted the cheese. When he tried to pick a sandwich up he burnt himself and immediately dropped the sandwich into the open bowl of soup.
Never one to worry too much about the little things, Dolittle Senior picked up the soggy sandwich and rolled it up a little, as if to rinse out the soup. He then proceeded to dry it out by toasting it over the hot coals. The result was a toasted bit of rolled up bread with melted cheese and the added taste of onion soup. Thus was a masterpiece of tasty delight made. By accident. On a train, in 1867.
To the world's greatest cheese roll. It’s our family recipe and we’re not sharing it with you. We will do you this solid though. If you’re traveling through Winton at any point, stop at the MIddle Pub and order the cheese roll. It ain’t the best but it might be the longest.
And if you’ve never tried a cheese roll before. Start simple with this and enjoy.
*This version of history came to us in a dream when suffering a food coma after eating too many cheese rolls. It may or may not be true.