The Kiwi food that can't (or won't) be improved

Chris frowns for a couple of seconds, then shakes his head. "Nup."

"You sure?" I plead. "I reckon it'd be good."

He shakes his head again. "Nup."

And that's it: my grand plan for revolutionising the cheese roll, for taking a simple snack into a new stratosphere of gastronomic excellence, for shaking the cheese-roll-eating community to its very foundations, is scuppered by one word: nup.

Apparently, residents of Dunedin, in New Zealand, don't take kindly to Aussie-come-latelys attempting to improve on a local tradition. Some things are brilliant in their simplicity and cheese rolls are, apparently, some of those things. The message I'm getting is loud and clear: if the cheese roll ain't broke, don't try to fix it.

I am, admittedly, a cheese roll rookie. Ten minutes before my suggestion, I'd never even heard of the things, let alone pondered ways to improve them.

It's almost incredible there could be a foodstuff in the Western world I hadn't already heard of - not because I've done a lot of travelling but because in this shrunken, globalised world of ours, word usually gets around pretty quickly about anything that's good.

After all, I could have a Vietnamese noodle soup for breakfast, an Indian thali for lunch and a Hungarian goulash with bread dumplings for dinner, all without leaving the confines of the Sydney city centre. So you would think the word on something as simple as bread and cheese would have travelled over the Tasman by now. Alas, it has not.

In fact, word of the cheese roll hasn't even crossed the ditch between New Zealand's North and South islands. It has barely even made it over the line dividing Otago and Canterbury. This is some seriously localised stuff; it's like haggis, only without the gruesome bits of sheep innards.

All right, the obvious question for those who haven't tried a cheese roll is: what's a cheese roll? At its very simplest, I'm told, it's a slice of bread that's spread with a mix of grated cheese, evaporated milk and onion soup mix, then rolled up, spiked with a toothpick to hold it in roll form and toasted.

There are several theories about how it should be toasted. I, at first, assumed it could be fried in a pan but was informed I might as well have assumed Crowded House are from Australia. Not the done thing in these parts. Sacrilege.

Some fancy-schmancy people can get away with doing their toasting in a cafe-style grill press but the real way to do it is by sliding it under an oven grill.

(If this all sound rigidly scientific, that's because it is. Last year, the University of Otago did a study of what makes the perfect cheese roll, examining the finer points of the process. Apparently, the secret is microwaving the gooey mess of filling before you whack it on the bread to get an even spread.)

This cylindrical sandwich has become a part of the culture, which might have something to do with Dunedin's large student population. It sounds, after all, like the ideal student snack, the kind of thing you would throw together out of the random foodstuffs leftover in the cupboard after a big night out. Onion soup mix and evaporated milk? Definitely the stuff of student desperation, if you ask me.

Still, it's well loved by everyone. Local mums even have cheese roll days to raise money rather than the old cake sales or sausage sizzle.

Every cafe and bakery seems to have its own version. Some do crazy things such as add mustard to the mix, or throw in some cream cheese to complement the cheddar but aside from these brief explanations, their recipes are guarded like military secrets. You would have more luck asking Graham Henry about the All Blacks' tactics.

The cheese roll I'm trying is from a cafe down by St Claire beach. It's not exactly famous for the things but that's half the point - everyone in Dunedin should be able to do a good cheese roll.

And it's good. There's so much cheese in it that it oozes out of the end in a molten eruption when I take a bite. The bread is toasted a golden brown, the onion soup mix - Heston Blumenthal, take note - actually seems to work pretty well and the whole thing must contain a hideous amount of fat, which is kind of the point with a snack such as this.

"It's awesome," I say to Chris, a Dunedin local who's taken me out for the day. "I could eat about a hundred of them."

"Not bad, eh?" he says, beaming.

"You know what'd be great, though?" I ask between mouthfuls. "If you dipped the bread in bechamel sauce first, kind of like the French do with a croque-monsieur. Then it'd be even richer."

That's when Chris frowns and actually looks a bit insulted before shaking his head at me.


Tried a cheese roll in Dunedin? What did you think? Ever come across a food while travelling you had never heard of before?