A Cheese for Truck Drivers
It’s not about the cheese.
Some time ago, I overheard a conversation in a Vermont country store about a special cheese that is produced – and sold – only in Vermont. A variety of excellent, locally-produced cheeses abound in the Green Mountain State, but this particular one caught my attention simply because of its name. They called it a “truck driver’s cheese”, saying they had heard about it through friends and decided to come to Vermont to see if they could track it down.
My curiosity was immediately piqued – especially since the name conjured up all sorts of images, the least of which was one of a great-tasting cheese. Nevertheless, I decided to take on this epicurean quest and spent the next few months in search of a cheese that was inexplicably linked with truck drivers.
I began my search by visiting the dairy sections of area stores and supermarkets. Nothing named “trucker’s cheese”, or any variation thereof, was to be found anywhere. I contacted some area cheesemakers. No leads. I asked a few of my farmer friends. “Maybe it’s just a rural myth,” they offered. I was starting to believe them when a small piece of information put me back on the trail – an acquaintance had heard of a unique cheddar that came from somewhere in southern Vermont.
The very next day, I hopped in my car and headed down Vermont’s Historic Route 7A, stopping at every general store along the way, hoping to find someone who might be able to provide more clues. Finally, a concrete suggestion: “There’s a cheese house in Arlington you might want to try,” I was told. “They have every kind of cheese imaginable, and the owner is quite knowledgeable. If he’s never heard of this so-called trucker’s cheese, then it doesn’t exist. Just continue south on 7A until you come to a building that looks like a block of cheddar.”
I could barely contain myself as I bounced back out to my car and continued on to Arlington. Smiling with delight, I easily recognized my destination: a round yellow building in the shape of a wheel of cheese with a wedge cut out for the entrance. “I haven’t seen anything like this since the sixties!” I said to myself aloud. I parked the car, walked in the door, and headed straight towards the cheese cooler, excited about the prospect of finally meeting this legendary cheddar face-to-face. “What would it look like?” I wondered as I perused the vast selection before me. And, more importantly, how would it taste? I must admit I didn’t have high hopes for anything extraordinary, but by now my curiosity had the best of me.
“May I help you find something?” came a male voice from behind the counter. “Yes,” I responded as I looked up from the cooler. “Would you, by any chance, have something called truck driver’s cheese?” I held my breath, waiting for the answer.
“Yes, we do……” he replied.
“YAY!” I exclaimed before he could finish his sentence. “I’ve been looking for this for months!”
“……but we don’t have any in the store right now.”
My heart sank as visions of a delectable wine and cheese celebration faded from my imagination. “The next batch should be ready in a month or so.” I was temporarily disappointed, but thrilled to have finally found the source of this elusive cheese. I introduced myself and found I was talking to the owner, Rick Serraro.
“So tell me, what’s so special about this trucker’s cheese?” I asked.
“It’s a VERY strong cheddar,” he replied, “produced in Vermont and aged about 4 years which gives it quite a ‘bite’. It’s not for everybody, but it certainly has a loyal following.”
“Why is it so hard to find?”
“We’re the only ones who sell it.”
Rick gave me his card and told me to check back in a few weeks. I left the Cheese House even more curious than when I arrived.
A month goes by before I finally receive the good news that a new batch of their “Truck Driver” Cheddar is ready.
Rick greets me upon my return to The Cheese House, but before I am introduced to the “truck driver’s” experience, he provides a little background. The original owner of the Cheese House, Earl Russell, was the man who adapted this version of truck driver’s cheese. As the story goes, he brought one of the batches of this cheddar into the store and gave a test sample to a couple of truck drivers who had stopped to purchase snacks for the road. The response was unanimous. “This will knock your socks off!” they exclaimed and so the cheese became known as trucker’s cheese and soon the name, Truck Driver® Cheddar became a registered trademark of the store. When Rick and Judy Serraro purchased the Cheese House many years later, they continued to carry on the tradition of offering this very special cheese to their clientele.
Rick explains once again that this Truck Driver® Cheddar can be rather strong for most palates, but by now I’m ready for anything. Having lived in France and traveled throughout Germany, I’ve sampled some pretty obnoxious cheeses along with some extraordinary ones. As a fan of robust red wines with strong tannins, I’m somewhat confident my taste buds will survive the experience. After all, how strong can it be, really?
“Let’s try this first,” he says as he slices a cheddar sample onto a square of waxed paper and places it on the counter before me. “For comparison, I’m starting you out with a medium cheddar called Ol’ Rat Trap. It’s not as harsh, and it appeals to just about everybody.”
The names of these cheeses just keep getting better and better!
“Ol’ Rat Trap” proves to be a deliciously mellow cheddar with just enough flavor to hold up to wine, fruit or beer. I’m immediately hooked.
“This is a consistent cheese,” Rick continues. “The flavor remains pretty much the same from batch to batch. With the Truck Driver® Cheese, however, the taste ‘slides’ from REAL strong to less strong. Each batch is different.”
Now I’m starting to understand the appeal.
He goes back to the cutting board and returns with two different cheese samples. One is a pale cream color with a rather smooth texture, the other is deeper yellow and a bit more crumbly. Both are the famous Truck Driver® Cheddar.
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I take a deep breath and try the darker slice first, closing my eyes in order to experience the full effect……
Firm, robust with just the right amount of “bite”. The flavor fills my mouth and a pleasant acid aftertaste “hangs” at the back of my throat. I take back everything I was thinking about how a truck driver’s cheese would taste.
“That’s our current batch,” Rick explains. “Now try the second slice, which is from a previous batch.” I lift the pale-colored cheese to my lips. This one has a slightly stronger aroma. The acid aftertaste is more pronounced.
“See the difference?” he said. “That’s what I meant when I said the taste ‘slides’ from batch to batch”.
Rick is the perfect guide.
Now he offers me a third slice, even more pale than the one before, with an aroma I can smell even before picking it up. “Be careful of this one!” he warns. He is right. This cheese is much more harsh with an acidic taste that actually dries out the palate. It’s one of the rare batches that proved to be unsellable.
Thinking back to my long search for this cheese, I ask Rick why this incredible Truck Driver® Cheddar seems to be one of Vermont’s best kept secrets.
“This cheese is produced in small quantities and, as you have seen, each batch varies widely. I’m more concerned about offering my customers a quality experience than mass-marketing products. I prefer they have the opportunity to taste the cheese and learn more about it so they can make an informed purchase.”
And that’s when I realized it’s not about the cheese.
Or the money.
Or attracting a global market.
It’s about the experience. It’s about caring enough to not only offer a quality product, but to make sure it’s supported by excellent customer service.
I understood completely. Certain things are meant to be preserved and Rick Serraro has taken on the responsibility of continuing a 30-year tradition he inherited from the original owners of The Cheese House. Fortunately for his clients, he takes that responsibility very seriously.
I thanked Rick for the experience and left the Cheese House with a block of the Truck Driver® Cheddar and some of the Ol’ Rat Trap. I stopped at a friend’s on the way home to share my stash, and he just happened to have a robust red wine with magnificent tannins to celebrate my discovery. I made a toast to Rick and The Cheese House, to great wine and excellent friends, and to truckers who know a good cheese when they taste one.
Cheese Notes: I do not have any delusions about being an experienced connaisseur of cheese (or wine, or anything else for that matter!) I am simply an epicurean with eclectic tastes who loves the art of discovery and sharing what appeals to me.
The Cheese House, Arlington, Vermont
Back in the sixties, a man named Earl Russell, a native of Troy, New York, opened the original Cheese House in Arlington, Vermont, which at the time was built to look even more like a round of cheese, complete with Swiss cheese holes painted on the sides, and a mouse named “Chunky” perched on the roof. Area residents initially labled it an eyesore but were impressed with the quality of the products and the customer service. As the business grew, Russell opened more of these roadside cheese franchises throughout New England. The Serraros purchased the original Arlington Cheese House in 1998, and continue to carry on the tradition, offering the finest selection of cheeses as well as Vermont maple products, pancake muffin and scone mixes, preserves, mustards, and a variety of wines and beer.
Serena Kovalosky is the owner-producer at Artful Vagabond Productions LLC, specializing in cultural projects, exhibitions and films on visual arts. Kovalosky is also a professional sculptural artist and curator.