Afrim Pristine: A passion for cheese, a love of cooking

Maître Fromager Afrim Pistine in the cheese cave at Cheese Boutique in Toronto.

For the Love of Cheese: Recipes and Wisdom from Cheese Boutique, by Afrim Pristine, Maître Fromager at Cheese Boutique in Toronto, is much more than a cookbook. Yes, 164 of its 214 pages are devoted to recipes but even those pages are chockful of cheese knowledge and anecdotes from Afrim’s lifelong devotion and passion.

He was born into the business that began as a convenience store in the Bloor West Village in the 1960s, eventually growing into the Cheese Boutique on Ripley Avenue, Toronto’s pre-eminent retailer of fine cheese and gourmet foods.

Afrim started working at the store when he was eight years old. Three decades later, there is no one, arguably, with a higher profile and deeper knowledge of cheese in Toronto.

Afrim’s father, Fatos Pristine, built the business by cultivating relationships with the city’s outstanding chefs. Afrim has taken those relationships to the next level. Many are his close friends, many have contributed to recipes in the book. The list reads like a who’s who of chefs: from Michael Bonacini, who wrote the foreword, to Claudio Aprile and Chuck Hughes, Mark McEwan, Jonathan Gushue, Anthony Walsh and Daniel Bolud, to Bob Blumer who describes the “spine-tingling gastrogasm” of enjoying Époisses.

But when I asked Afrim what is the one recipe of the 79 in the book that I must try, he recommended his mother’s Gatto di Patate. How he knew we love potatoes in this house almost as much of cheese, I don’t know, but Modesta Pristine’s recipe delivered deliciousness in spades, as you can read here.

For the Love of Cheese is available for convenient online purchase and contactless delivery at the CheeseLover.ca Bookstore.

The wisdom portion of the book’s subtitle starts straightaway, after an introductory history of Cheese Boutique, with Cheese 101, Afrim’s take on all you need to know about buying, storing and enjoying cheese. He covers all the bases in a straightforward, useful manner.

Afrim, like most cheesemongers worthy of the name, is often asked to name his favourite cheese—an impossible question, really, given the thousands of tasty cheeses on the planet. His response is to identify his top 10 cheeses of all time, in order of preference, no less.

The man loves to cook: Afrim Pristine working a wood stove at Fogo Island Inn.

We won’t reveal the entire list but will allow that Parmigiano-Reggiano is clearly the first cheese named—“The king of cheeses, end of story”—while two Canadian cheeses make the list:

  • #7. OKA
  • “Simple, straightforward, with the perfect amount of stink.”
  • #10 FRESH CHEESE CURDS
  • “Go, Canada, go!”

Then follows a section on all 55 cheeses used in the book’s recipes—which results in a handy directory of possibly the 55 tastiest cheeses in the world.

Afrim does love to cook, as witnessed by the feature in Foodism magazine.

If you love cheese and enjoy cooking half as much as Afrim Pristine, For the Love of Cheese is the book for you.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheesehead-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca, is chairman and founder of Canadian Cheese Awards and director and founder of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

 

Gattò di Patate: For the love of cheese, salami and potato

When I asked Afrim Pristine what is the one recipe in For the Love of Cheese: Recipes and Wisdom from Cheese Boutique that I must try, he recommended his mother’s Gatto di Patate. How he knew we love potatoes in this house almost as much of cheese, I don’t know, but Modesta Pristine’s recipe delivered deliciousness in spades, spuds and curds.

It’s a classic Neapolitan dish—Il Gattò di Patate in Italian—that Mrs. Pristine makes on special occasions, such as when relatives visit from Italy.

The recipe calls for Ragusano, Mozzarella, Salami Cacciatore and Yukon Golds, in addition to milk, eggs, unsalted butter, nutmeg, sea salt, ground pepper and fine breadcrumbs. We substituted Parmigiano-Reggiano for the Ragusano, an Italian PDO-protected cheese made exclusively in provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa, Sicily. It is one of the oldest cheeses in Sicily dating back to 1500.

After mashing the boiled potatoes with milk, eggs and grated Parmigiano, we cubed the Mozzarella and Salami and mixed gently with a wooden spoon, adding seasoning as we went.

After applying butter to the bottom of the casserole dish and adding breadcrumbs, in went the potato mixture with all its ingredients. Then a coating of breadcrumbs and more butter before our Gattò went into the oven.

After an hour in the oven at 350F, we concluded we had been too liberal with breadcrumbs, but what the whey. The aroma of baked cheese and potato was fabulous, lingering in our home till late in the evening.

The first scoop revealed a wonderful warm mixture of cheese, potato and salami.

Served with Italian sausages and green beans, we had ourselves a wonderful feast.

Thank you, Mrs. Pristine!

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheesehead-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca, is chairman and founder of Canadian Cheese Awards and director and founder of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.