Saturday, 23 April 2016

Mock food in the South Pacific

This fortnight's Historical Food Challenge is Mock Foods - "Historic cookbooks are full of recipes meant to imitate rare, expensive or impractical ingredients. It’s your turn to help your food pretend it’s something that it isn’t!"

New Zealand is geographically isolated.  Historically, many foods from overseas weren't available here, or were expensive.  That's still true to some extent, and it seemed appropriate to make a distinctly Kiwi entry for Mock Foods.  So what unobtainable delicacy will I be imitating in this blog post?  Turtle?  Caviar?  Nope.  This is New Zealand we're talking about here.  I'll be making imitation processed cheese.

Rex Luncheon Cheese was an Australian processed cheese product sold in cans.  Apparently it was popular but expensive, and it may have been difficult to get hold of in more isolated parts of the country.  So Kiwi housewives figured out how to make imitation Rex Cheese at home.

Advertisement for Rex Luncheon Cheese printed in The Age, 12 June 1925.

Recipes for imitation Rex Cheese began to appear in the 1920s.  This one is from The New Zealand Truth, 18 September 1930, and seems to be fairly representative of its type*.  It involves cheese, egg, vinegar, mustard, and cayenne pepper.  Advertisements described Rex Cheese as "piquant", which was apparently the product's point of difference and gave it a competitive edge over other canned cheese products.

The recipe is easy to make; you just put all the ingredients in a saucepan and stir until thick.  You have to stir constantly and vigorously, because it tends to curdle a bit like scrambled eggs.  This is actually the mixture starting to thicken up.  The "curds" are soft, and if you stir vigorously enough you'll get a thick and reasonably smooth consistency, but it looks like it's going to be a horrible disaster and it doesn't smell all that wonderful either.  I spent the whole cooking process looking at this stuff in horror and thinking "should it be doing that?  Ye gods, I think it is supposed to do that!"

Imitation Rex Luncheon Cheese.  I just love the gloriously artificial-looking orange colour.   In fact that's from the egg yolks, there's no colouring in there at all.

The recipe I used was intended as a filling for pastries, but the traditional way to serve imitation Rex Cheese is in cheese rolls.  These savoury snacks, sometimes called the sushi of the South, are a regional dish from Otago and Southland that you don't often see here in the North Island.  And that's a shame, because they are delicious in the way that only cheese-based junk food can be.  Of course, modern cheese roll recipes don't use imitation Rex Cheese.  They use a completely different cheese filling, and while I waited for my cheese rolls to toast I was uneasily aware that there might be a good reason for that.

Cheese rolls made with imitation Rex Luncheon Cheese.  They certainly look like they're made with processed cheese, but were they edible?  Read on to find out.

The Challenge: Mock Foods.

The Recipe: This one.

The Date/Year and Region: 1930s New Zealand.

How Did You Make It: As per the recipe.

Time to Complete:  25 minutes.

Total Cost: I didn't need to buy anything for this challenge because I already had the ingredients on hand.

How Successful Was It?  If there's one thing even less appealing than Depression-era canned cheese, it would have to be imitation Depression-era canned cheese.   But to my great surprise, the imitation Rex Cheese tasted okay.  It was cheesy and savoury and, yes, piquant.  It also held together and didn't ooze out of the cheese rolls when I toasted them, which was good.  In fact my only complaint is that the recipe has too much mustard.   If you make this recipe, I suggest you halve the amount of mustard.  In all honesty however, there are better cheese roll recipes out there.

How Accurate Is It? Well, I followed the recipe and I think it did turn out the way it was supposed to.   I'd love to know what Rex Cheese was really like and whether this recipe was a convincing imitation, but, sadly, Rex Luncheon Cheese is not available today.  The company that produced it no longer exists.

The consistency of my imitation cheese was more like a thick custard than any cheese product I've ever encountered, and I find it hard to believe the texture of this ersatz recipe was anything like the texture of real Rex Cheese, but then again we know Rex Cheese was spreadable and could be purchased in jars, so maybe this version isn't so far off after all.  Presumably the taste was at least reasonably similar.

* Although the recipe doesn't specifically mention Rex Cheese, its ingredients and preparation appear to be typical of imitation Rex Cheese recipes.  Compare it with this recipe provided by the Otago Daily Times, which was published in 1984 and is therefore ineligible for Historical Food Fortnightly challenges.