If you can’t bring the desert to grilled cheese, you gotta bring grilled cheese to the desert. At least, that’s how it was for The Cheese Truck, a grilled cheese operation working from a refurbished, 40-year-old former ice cream van in London, England. The Cheese Truck won a roster spot for the Abu Dhabi Food Festival’s Street Feast, a series of three multi-day food festivals in the United Arab Emirates promoting British and international street food. Culture spoke to Cheese Truck founder and proprietor Mathew Carver about the Emirati palate, the elusiveness of camel’s milk cheese, and toning down Instagram photos.
Mathew Carver: Loosely, the reason it came about was because I went traveling around the States. I ate quite a lot of grilled cheese, came back to London, couldn’t really find anyone doing grilled cheese sandwiches, and so we kind of wanted to make good grilled cheese sandwiches. And in order to make the best grilled cheese sandwiches you need to use the best cheese, and so that’s when the interest in cheese came about. I tried to find the best British cheeses to use. So it was more from wanting to make the best grilled cheese sandwich I could that I got involved in finding the best cheese I could.
culture: How did you get involved in the Street Feast festival?
MC: So we’ve also been doing markets and events around London for the last year and a bit, and one of the companies that we work for was approached by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture to do a British street food showcase in Abu Dhabi as part of their Abu Dhabi Food Festival. I think they were basically doing it to try and start a kind of street food culture in Abu Dhabi… [showing] what’s worked in the UK. So everyone applied—lots and lots of street food traders in London applied—and luckily we were selected to go, so we went along with nine other street food vans from the UK, and we flew out there.
MC: Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture helped us a lot with logistics, so they took care of the shipping of the truck, which is still quite a feat—it took the best part of a month to ship it out there. And supply-wise, it was quite hard to find decent cheese out there.
culture: Were you buying cheese in Abu Dhabi rather than shipping it yourself from Britain?
MC: Yeah, we looked into shipping it, but it’s really hard—especially if you’re just doing it as a one-off. If you’ve already got a supply chain in place then it’s a lot easier for importing and stuff through Abu Dhabi customs, but just to do one order wasn’t really feasible. So we bought it through a wholesaler in the Middle East who buys British cheese.
culture: Did you have to compromise your menu in any way?
MC: Yeah, a little bit. We used some foreign cheeses where we couldn’t find [our usual stuff]—for example, Ogleshield is a cheese we use quite a lot over here, which is like a British version of a French raclette cheese, but we couldn’t get that over there so we instead used a French raclette cheese. So we did compromise on some of our European cheeses, just because it made it a whole lot easier.
MC: The first event we did was in Madinat Zayed, which is kind of a really rural part of Abu Dhabi, right in the middle of the desert. All of the customers were Emiratis; there were no Westerners there. And it was all right—I mean, it took quite a while to explain to Emiratis what a grilled cheese sandwich was, and I think they were a bit apprehensive about trying cheeses. They’re used to halloumi and feta, quite salty cheeses, so it’s quite different from anything they’ve had before. But in the other two events, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, it was kind of a mix of both quite a lot of Westerners—quite a lot of Americans and British—and also the Emiratis who were there were more accustomed to Western cuisine… A lot of them had been to America and stuff and had grilled cheese sandwiches, so there it was phenomenally busy because everyone kinda knew what it was but hadn’t had it for quite a while.
culture: What ended up being your most popular sandwich? Were you surprised by different ordering trends, UK vs. UAE?
MC: I was, actually. In the UK our classic cheddar—we do Ogleshield and mixed onion, kind of a classic grilled cheese—is our most popular. In the UAE, we did one with Stilton and beefsteak, red onion chutney and some rocket [arugula], and that was by far the most popular over there, which was surprising. I think because they really like their meat as well.
culture: How was the food in Abu Dhabi?
MC: Yeah, it was all right. It seems like the food scene in Abu Dhabi doesn’t really… I mean, they don’t have a street food culture at all, and it seems like they either have really high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants or they have the other end of the spectrum like workers’ cafes and little Indian cafes and Lebanese cafes where the food’s really cheap… There isn’t really that middle-class dining food scene that you have in the UK and that you have in America as well.
culture: Were you inspired to incorporate any Emirati food in your food truck?
MC: There’s a local cheese that’s made from camel milk, which we were trying to find. For the three weeks we were there we were trying to find who sells it, where you can get it from, but we just couldn’t find any. No matter how hard we searched, we just couldn’t find the camel’s milk cheese. I was really hoping to do a special with the camel’s milk cheese. Or at least try it.
culture: Did you encounter any instances of culture shock?
MC: I think there’s a massive cultural difference, especially in the first one we did, in Madinat Zayed, because it’s not very Western at all, it’s all very Emirati, all very traditional—they’re still really strong with their beliefs. And it’s kind of the culture shock you’d imagine to have in a Middle Eastern country, the way women are dressed and perceived… For instance, a couple of the traders posted photos to their Instagram of their vans and queues and stuff, and in a couple of those photos an Emirati woman’s face was showing, which is, like, strictly, strictly against Emirati beliefs—you can’t show a lady’s face in photos—and we actually had the police come down and asked us to remove the photos because their husbands had been complaining.
So it’s little cultural shocks like that that are so far removed from what you imagine in the Western world.
What else… Just the way they behave over there—they’re all very well off, y’know what I mean? Their lives they lead are quite cozy. We had people order twenty or thirty sandwiches at a time, which we don’t really get in the UK. Just the amount of money they got, I suppose—it’s bizarre. They’ll come in and throw, like, a 1000 dirham note [about $275] at you to get ten sandwiches. It’s so different.
culture: Do you want to go back to Abu Dhabi or travel somewhere else next winter?
MC: Yeah, definitely. I know the food festival we did in Abu Dhabi is on for the next three years, so hopefully we’ll be invited back next year to do it. I think it would be nice to do it again—we learned so much doing it the first time that it would be good to do it again to be able to tweak all those bits we got wrong, little bits you learn from.
But I also quite like the idea of going to different countries and doing what we do. We’ve had an idea for a while that we wanted to go to France, and sell British cheese in Paris. There’s a bit of, like, rivalry, so we want to just go over there with a load of British cheese and see how they take it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.