On Tuesday, I found a piece of cheese in my bra and my only regret was that I'd already eaten.
In July (also January through December) my thoughts turn to cheese. As an 11-year-old, when asked what I wanted for Christmas, I replied: "A wheel of aged gouda." In my teens, I discovered the umamic properties of penicillium moulds and demanded they bring me blue vein.
A short history of cheese: it is made of milk. A short history of milk: we need it to survive.
Cheese is literally the grown-up expression of the first food we ever ate. It is the main ingredient in scones, souffles and seduction. It defies demographics. It is, said the world's greatest food writer M.F.K. Fisher, something that "both sophisticated and simple humans love".
In July, my thoughts turn to toasted cheese.
The Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover is a shameless publicity stunt by a local food merchants Cook & Nelson and American pickle company McClure's. It has excellent PR: "The humble toastie is a simple hero for these complex times. A warm, crunchy, spicey, gooey, pickley friend to lift our spirits and ignite our creativity."
Humans thrive on competition and we're also hardwired for gastronomic novelty. Our omnivore's dilemma is a push me-pull you argument: I'm So Bored with Lunch versus Will This Kill Me?
Sometimes our neophilic nature inspires an instant classic (strawberries and balsamic, lamb and anchovies) other times, it just results in Instagram. The main ingredients in a rainbow toastie, for example, are bread, cheese, food colouring and remorse. Photographs depict torn unicorn ligaments. There is no joy in this stretchy, multi-hued horror show, because real cheese toasties should be made for the couch, not the internet. Real cheese toasties come with soup, the Sunday night movie and a turtleneck sweater.
Why do we love cheese? Both science and popular magazines confirm it contains a compound similar to morphine and an amino acid that trips our dopamine switch but M.K.F. Fisher puts it best: "In a time of peril and unspoken fear it is an anaesthetic and can make your guests, your own self, feel slightly stimulated by its flavour and more than a little reassured to know that it still exists." She wrote that during World War II but current conditions apply. Basically, the planet has never been more cheese toastie-ready.
This year, more than 80 eateries from Whangārei (pickled pineapple and smoked cheddar) to Dunedin (mashed spud, meatloaf and aged cheddar) have entered the toastie takeover. Finalists will be announced on August 3 and, this year, consumers are invited to invent their own perfect toastie. Inspiration from the experts? Canvas sampled two Auckland entries. At Cheese on Toast, a little hole-in-the-wall at the Three Kings end of Mt Eden Rd, they've reinterpreted the cheeseburger. Crunchy, fatty, meaty. The sourdough-encased embodiment of my mother's electric frying pan on rissoles night. At Ponsonby's Longroom, they've smoked a pork belly for two days, added dairy to the kimchi and upped the ante with a chip and pickle dip add-on.
"That pork was so tender and the pickle was so tangy," said Daisy, aged 15. "A vibrant, melty moment for a rainy afternoon," said Isaac, aged 15.
Palusami. Kahawai. Cauliflower. Peanut butter. If it goes with cheese, someone will have put it in a toastie. They come with broccoli slaw, tomato soup and, at Hamilton's Hayes Common, a small novel entitled South of the Bombay Sarnie. The menu descriptor runs to 88 words because, in the Waikato, they take hot cheese very seriously - 29 eateries are currently competing in a completely unrelated regional Meyer Cheese Melt Challenge.
(A note about melting: Cheddar liquefies at 65 degrees C. Applied to human skin, it takes two seconds for a third-degree burn. Canvas inquiries to ACC reveal that in the 11 months to June 20, it received 14 toastie-related claims and a further 12 hot/melted cheese claims were accepted.)
It's impossible to know who made the first cheese toastie. Archaeologists have found cheese traces in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000BC and Libyan cave paintings from 2000 years before that are believed to depict cheese-making. Legend says the first cheese was created when an Arabian herdsman packed fresh milk into a pouch made from an animal stomach - a hard day's riding in hot sun contributed to the chemical reaction needed to produce curds.
Somewhere, between now and then, we made curdled milk sexy. The other weekend, at the new Balmoral Flea Market, I paid $2 for a second-hand copy of The Playboy Gourmet. It's the 1971 edition, written "by a man for men" and it contains 12 different recipes for oysters and an entire chapter on cheese.
"For centuries, cheese was mainly eaten just as it came from the cave or cellar," writes chef Thomas Mario. "Cheese's richest idiom, however, is on the fire, melted down with kirsch, bubbling with oil, fried in crunchy croquettes and tossed into big onion pies."
On page 293, a recipe for Roquefort and cheddar - on toast.