It’s simple and cheesy, and you’ve probably never heard of it, but the much-loved cheese roll – a dish beloved of students and shearers in New Zealand’s ‘Deep South’ – is undergoing a renaissance.
The glories of the cheese roll are many, and manifest: sliced white bread, filled with a gooey cheese mixture, rolled and then grilled before being rubbed with a generous smear of butter. And yet, until recently they were virtually unknown outside New Zealand’s southern regions of Southland and Otago.
It’s the perfect thing to have with soup. It’s perfect for afternoon tea. It’s perfect for morning tea. Many would even argue it’s perfect for breakfast. It’s great for dinner – or post-dinner, in fact. In France you’d have it on top of onion soup.
The classic New Zealand cheese roll is a variation on that most classic of combinations: bread, cheese, a little bit of flavouring, a grill – it’s part of the same impulse as the Welsh rarebit and the French croque monsieur.
Though as far as anyone can tell, only in the south of New Zealand do they have a tradition of grilling the whole thing rolled up, sometimes with toothpicks, and to this day the cheese roll is almost unheard of in the North Island, despite having being a mainstay of southern cuisine for more than half a century.
The roll has its origins in the 1930s and by the 1950s, they were commonplace around the south. Inventive housewives spiced up bland, local cheddar with vinegar: New Zealand's Deep South was colonised by Scottish Presbyterians with a love of thrift, and you get the sense the cheese roll was the perfect expression of that. Later still they added chopped onion and by the 1970s, a version using grated cheese, condensed milk and powdered onion soup had appeared.
In the days when you might be required to whip out something for visitors, most hospitable Southern housewives had a tray in the freezer, ready to go under the grill at a moment’s notice and so they fed shearing gangs and sports teams alike.
Helen Leach, the University of Otago academic who has researched the history of the mighty cheese roll at length as part of her investigations of regionalism, theorises that the cheese roll grew in appeal because the south of New Zealand is so much colder than the north. “Soup was very common in southern lunches,” she says. “There was always a big pot of soup – it helps us get through winter. And you don’t want to eat cold sandwiches with your soup: you want something hot and crunchy.”
These days, they’re known as “Southern Sushi” and they are an intrinsic part of the fiercely proud local culture. Dunedin has an emerging food scene and a quirky sense of its own history, and so you’ll find cheese rolls for as little as $2.00 – most memorably at Governors Café on George Street, which has been feeding hungry students at Formica tables for decades, though they also make for a hearty pick-me-up on Saturdays at the outdoor Otago Farmers’ Market. You’ll even find them on the menus of some of the city’s hip new cafés – like the Vogel Street Kitchen in the city’s regenerating warehouse precinct.
Venture beyond Dunedin and you’ll find cheese rolls on the menu just about everywhere you look in New Zealand’s southern regions – from the southern city of Invercargill to seaside Oamaru on the northern Otago coast where the ‘Cheese Roll Lady’ Sue Harvey parks up her van in the Oamaru Farmers Market held every Sunday in the town’s heritage precinct. Sue’s been making cheese rolls for many years for festivals and community fundraisers and her rolls have earned a dedicated following.
Wherever you find it, the perfect cheese roll will have a gooey, melted cheese inside and a crunchy outside – usually aided with a generous spread of butter before it goes under the grill, though not, local cheese roll enthusiast Hamish Saxton notes, into a sandwich press. “It’s completely pointless to take a roll and put it into a sandwich machine,” he says. “You end up with a cheese flat.”
In some of the cafés, you’ll even find ones using artisan cheese and bread – local artisan cheese maker Whitestone Cheese has developed one using their cheddar for Forsyth Barr Stadium along with their own shop in Oamaru. There has even been one using farmhouse brie and sourdough, though Leach still thinks you should look out for the traditional version. “It’s nice to have a taste tucked inside the roll,” she says. “You bite into it and it oozes into your mouth and releases onto your taste buds.”
How to get there
Dunedin is located almost at the bottom of the South Island, 360km from Christchurch down State Highway 1. The airport has several flights a day from major New Zealand airports including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Invercargill is New Zealand's most southern city. The airport is serviced by flights from major New Zealand airports but one of the most popular ways to arrive in the city is by road on the Southern Scenic Route which travels from Dunedin to Invercargill via the spectacular Catlins Coast.
Best time to visit
Dunedin is actually at its most vibrant during the cooler months (March and November), when 20,000 full-time students at the University of Otago are in residence. Oyster lovers head to Invercargill for the annual Bluff Oyster amd Food Festival each May. This also, just quietly, happens to be the best time of year to eat cheese rolls.
Where to find the best cheese rolls
The Good Oil, Dunedin
An instant Dunedin classic, the coffee in this bricky downtown café is almost as good as the cheese rolls. 314 George Street, Dunedin
Chamber of Coffee, Dunedin
This Dunedin newcomer has a sunny, retro-styled interior with chrome stools that make a perfect spot for a cheeky roll.
Forsyth Barr House, The Octagon, Dunedin
Starfish Café, St Clair
Where you can get a fabulous view of the wild south’s coastline to go with your roll.
St Clair Esplanade, St Clair
Vogel Street Kitchen, Dunedin
A brilliant café in a gorgeous rejuvenated former printers in Dunedin’s hip up and coming warehouse precinct.
76 Vogel Street, Dunedin
Otago Farmers Market
The market is justifiably famous and the food from the market kitchen is brilliant.
Saturdays, Dunedin Railway Station
This quirky Invercargill café is themed on a zoo.
50 Tay Street, Invercargill
Sheep Milk Café, Invercargill
Blue River Dairy produces sheep milk feta, award winning cheeses, ice cream and cheese rolls.
111 Nith Street, Invercargill
Mrs Clarks Café, Riverton
Mrs Clarks Café, in seaside Riverton, is an award winning café that's locally famous for its cheese rolls.
108 Palmerston Street, Riverton
Old Post Café, Gore
For a different twist, this cafe is the home of the deep fried cheese roll.
103 Main St, Gore.
While Dunedin itself is a vibrant small city, within a short drive of the city there’s a lot to do, including the world-renowned albatross colony on the Otago Peninsula. The winter resort of Queenstown is a 3.5-hour drive, while the historic delights of Oamaru are just an hour away. The Cheese Roll Lady and her orange van are found on Sundays at the Oamaru Farmers Market in the heritage precinct. Invercargill is the gateway to Stewart Island, Fiordland National Park, Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Don't miss the Bill Richardson Transport World with its significant Henry Ford Collection.