Premier Cheese Market, 5013 France Avenue South, Minneapolis, 612.436.5590, www.premiercheesemarket.com
On one of the first really nice Saturdays of spring, I found myself up on a hill overlooking a beach at Lake Calhoun, watching wave after wave of the new hotness stream down the paths toward the lake, flip-flops on their feet, coolers on their shoulders, grocery bags dandling from their wrists. I knew that those coolers, those grocery bags were brimming with cheese—cheese in the sandwiches, cheese to eat with fruit, cheese to pair with the various beers and wines that would be hidden from the authorities within the sneaky confines of travel mugs. But then, I began to worry—was the cheese they carried good enough? Was it special enough, rare enough, cared-for enough? Was it cheese worthy of a perfect summer Saturday? Because you know, even if you are the new hotness, you only get so many perfect summer Saturdays in a year; I hate to think that any are wasted consorting with lesser cheeses.
One way to ensure that the cheese that accompanies you through life is of the best quality is to do your shopping at Premier Cheese Market. This newish shop is the realization of a dream for owner Ken Liss, who retired after 25 years in the Navy and immediately started a second career in food, first attending our local Cordon Bleu program and then designing an internship that allowed him to spend three months working in both the caves and the restaurants associated with Artisanal, the New York City cheese powerhouse. After all that, he worked in the cheese shop at Surdyk's, and then opened his own spot, which is, for lack of a better phrase, a sort of full-service cheese boutique.
I've been visiting the place off and on since it opened last August, and have been well impressed. First, there's the selection—some 180 cheeses, with especially strong U.K. and new American offerings as well as a jeweler's-case approach to the rest of the world, with something spectacular from practically everywhere. Then there's the customer-service side of things. While most local cheese shops have an open "coffin"-style refrigerator, so you can peer in and poke at the cheeses, Liss chose glass-front deli-style refrigerators that are only accessible from the back, meaning that anyone who wants cheese actually has to have a discussion with the people behind the counter. Because these people are very nice, and well informed, this works out well. Because one of these people is usually Ken Liss himself, it can work out very well. Especially if you're a beer or whiskey drinker.
"I aim to be the person in the Twin Cities most strongly associated with pairing beer and cheese," Liss told me once. "Done!" I replied. "Consider it done!" Because, you know, there aren't many people vying for the title.
"First," Liss told me, "cheddar and beer are the best of friends." So he hooked me up with a few remarkable options from the U.K., including the sweet, profound, and zingy Collier's Powerful Welsh Cheddar ($10.50 a pound); and the crumbly, tangy, mushroomy, deep and fierce Lincolnshire Poacher ($21.50). Then he sold me a wedge of Cahill's Porter ($16), a cheese made by bathing and setting cheese curds in a suspension made with dark-as-chocolate Guinness porter, so that the resulting cheese looks like headcheese, or, for the vegetarians, a stained-glass mosaic.
I also ended up with a sweet, nutty, subtly smoky, mellow Wisconsin Cheese, Maple Leaf smoked Gouda ($7); and Caciotta al Tartufo, an Italian cow's milk cheese made with little pieces of black truffles, which is, as you might have guessed, profoundly mushroomy, and otherwise tangy, biscuity, and nicely funky. Once home I sampled them all with a pair of beers, a pub can of Guinness and a Bell's Two Hearted ale, and was just dazzled by the combinations.
With the Collier's Powerful Welsh Cheddar, the Guinness would seem to be all coffee-cream and plush, but with the Cahill's Porter it would become oceanic and mineral, and with the Lincolnshire Poacher it showed a winey, almost mead-like power. On the other hand, the cheeses brought out a whole different realm of flavors and nuances in the Bell's, rendering the beer, alternately, sweet and roasty, smoky and herbal, rich and symphonic, thin and piercing, sweet and floral. All in all, I nominate this as the most fun you can have on a deck this summer, at least while the kids and neighbors are watching.
Or, if you want to do something with cheese in the dark privacy of your own crisper drawer, you could adopt a goat cheese of your own, and age it. This topic came up between Liss and me when I was complimenting him on the various soft cheeses he keeps off to one side, in their own segregated cooler. (They stay separate from the other cheeses so that their special surface molds don't contaminate their brethren.)
On one visit to the Premier Cheese Market I had tried their Sainte-Maure de Touraine ($15.50 for 10 ounces), one of the world's great French chèvres, and I thought it was in fantastic condition: The surface was all blue-gray, sticky, and moldy; the interior was a sweet, pungent, semi-solid with the goaty boldness and sweet floral notes that set a great chèvre apart from an average one. Every morsel was like a flower—with bite.
Liss told me, however, that he wasn't as happy with the condition of the Sainte-Maure as I was: If he had really been on the ball, he would have been patting the mold down by hand every three days or so, and turning it, to encourage the mold to be less bloomy, and harder. That is the true art of affinage—aging cheese. If I really wanted to explore affinage, Liss told me, I could take a fresh log of Sainte-Maure home, empty out a crisper drawer for it, and pat and turn it over the course of perhaps two weeks; if I did this, I would truly come to know how chèvre ages. (I could do the same thing with Valencay, $10, the classic pyramid-shaped French chèvre that Premier also sells.)
Better yet, you could experiment with, personalize, even make the one and only, on God's green earth of some washed-rind cheese. Intrigued? Here's how it would work. You would buy a young whole cheese such as Affidelice (about 7 ounces for $10.70), and you would take the golden little French cheese, which is traditionally made by "washing" the rind with Chablis, and you would spend about two weeks aging it in your vegetable crisper drawer, spritzing it every couple of days with a spray bottle filled with your choice of wine or spirit, and flipping it over. Liss told me he did this once with an Affidelice and a three-to-one solution of water and Knob Creek bourbon, finally pairing the cheese with snifters of bourbon.
I like the idea of this as an ultra-gourmand hobby: On the one hand, you'd join a cheese-eating elite of perhaps a dozen Minnesotans crazy enough to become affineur to their own French cheese; on the other hand, it sounds like it takes about three minutes every three days, which is my kind of time commitment. If it's your kind of time commitment also, please know you could do this not just with your favorite whiskey, but with Summit, with any wine, heck, with Captain Morgan or Malibu if the mood strikes you. After all, it's your summer, and if there are lesser cheeses to be eaten, shouldn't they be ones you will remember for the rest of your life?