The first taste of cheese for many Americans comes in the form of a mild cheddar, mozzarella, or an slice of processed American cheese. For Ken Liss, his first cheese memory is tasting the salty, farmers-like cheese of the carabao, a water buffalo found in much of Southeast Asia. Living overseas for most of his childhood, Liss relished the opportunities to taste his way through the new cultures and peoples he encountered, whether in Spain, Puerto Rico, Venezuela or the Philippines.
“I’ve always loved food and appreciated the different ways people deal with food because of their culture and climate,” Liss says. “In the Phillippines there’s a lack of cows, so cheese was made from the carabao.”
From that first taste, however, it took several decades for Liss to become the proprietor of the Premier Cheese Market in the 50th and France shopping district in Minneapolis. A long career in the Navy preceded a stint as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, and though he came to Minneapolis with the intent to earn his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, he instead began a 12-year gig as an adviser and administrator. On his neighbors’ suggestion, Liss enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and decided cheese was his future.
“My two passions are cheese and whiskey, and it’s easier to sell cheese than to sell whiskey,” he says. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to learn more about cheese – how it’s made, who makes it, what’s the history behind it.”
Three months as an intern at the Artisanal Cheese Center in New York City, where he learned the ins and outs of the cheese cave, cheese counter and cheese cart prepared Liss to open his shop in August 2006 with the paradigm “cheese made easy.”
“I wanted a shop that could provide everything for a cheese course or a cocktail party,” Liss says. “Americans are just learning that there’s more to pairing cheese than wine. There’s beer, spirits, condiments. You’d put mayo on a cheese sandwich, right? That’s a pairing.”
Stop into Premier Cheese Market, though, and it’s unlikely Liss will steer you to mayonnaise. In additional to a case full of domestic and imported cheeses, the shop offers premium olive oils, vinegars, honeys, salts, olives, breads and chocolates. Liss doesn’t have a license to sell alcohol but will happily suggest pairings or introduce you to other complimentary beverages, such as – surprisingly – coffee.
Bringing out a cup of Metropolis Coffee, Liss recalls his 30-year high-school reunion, where one of his classmates told him about the Puerto Rican tradition of dipping everything in coffee – including cheese. He cuts a slice of Isle of Mull cheddar and instructs his guests to dip the cheese in the coffee and taste.
“It tastes bready,” he marvels, noting how the cheese becomes sweeter and maltier with its coating of coffee. A second taste test with a Swiss Gruyère results in a similarly succulent match. “Cheddar and Gruyère are built to pair with anything.”
After cutting thin slices of St. Maure, a French goat cheese Liss calls a “bucheron with attitude,” he spoons out small portions of a burnt caramel sauce to drizzle on the cheese. The decadent sauce heightens the St. Maure’s inherent nuttiness, which combined with the cheese’s creamy texture and the sauce’s sugary sweetness makes you feel like you’re eating an ice cream sundae. The compatibility of cheeses and sweets shouldn’t come as a surprise, Liss says.
“Figs love cheese. The English use jam. You’ll see baked bries with berries or chutneys,” he says.
To prove the point further, he offers another goat cheese, a Southern Belle chèvre from Alabama, which smells like whiskey and is coated with nuts. He pours a small sample of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, takes a small taste of the cheese and sips the bourbon.
“See how the bourbon sweetens up the goat cheese?” he asks. “The finish is excellent – fruity and caramel-like.”
And what would Liss match with that carabao cheese from long ago? “Now that’s an interesting question! I think I would treat it like a salty mozzarella and go with a tangy white wine like a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio. However, I think the saltiness would do something interesting – in a good way – to some of the sakes I’ve tried! I think I’ll just have to go back to the Philippines and try some carabao cheese!”