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.

Potato, bacon and cheese: What’s there not to like?

Here we go, our first attempt to make La Tartiflette Gourmande following a Chef Club video recipe, with the help of Sarmite and Maris Vitols, friends in cheese.

Instead of Reblochon, the French classic, we used an outstanding Canadian cheese,  Origine de Charlevoix made by Laiterie Charlevoix in Québec.

Our tartiflette turned out rich and delicious!

Origine de Charlevoix is made by Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie-Saint-Paul one hour northeast of Quebec City, using milk from Canadienne breed cows. In taste and texture, the cheese is similar to Reblochon, the French classic.

Ours was sourced by Country Cheese Company in Ajax, Ontario.

Origine de Charlevoix was named Best Mixed Rind Cheese in the most recent Canadian Cheese Awards.

Pan-fry Yukon Gold potatoes with red onion until the spuds have softened. Then dress with parsley.

Sarmite Vitols makes sure the potatoes are just right.

Time to layer the baking pan with bacon.

The bed of bacon is ready. We use Dry Cured Bacon from Seed to Sausage.

Two wheels of Origine de Charlevoix cut in half. We resist the temptation to start nibbling on the aromatic cheese.

That’s two vital food groups looked after.

Now comes the third important food group: potatoes.

Potatoes surround the cheese on a bed of bacon. The mere words sound delicious!

Now we add the secret ingredient: crème fraiche.

More potatoes finish the prep before we head for the oven for 20+ minutes at 400F to 425F.

Voila!

Rich and delicious, a feast fit for a queen. With a green salad featuring fresh mango and avocado drizzled with a poppy-seed vinaigrette.

For libation, the in-house sommelier selected a lovely pinot gris from Acrobat Wine in Oregon. Thanks, Moe!

Zesty and buttery, the hostess-baked lemon tart was the perfect ending to a fine lunch. Thanks, Sam!

Here’s the Chef Club inspiration:
https://youtu.be/4x4_uj5hlg4

INGREDIENTS

  • Olive oil
  • Parsley
  • Yukon Gold potatoes
  • Red onion
  • Bacon slices
  • Origine de Charlevoix
  • Crème fraîche

In future, we will cut the bacon strips so they can be served more easily, and we won’t overdo the crème fraiche as it makes the dish wet.

Disclaimer: The tartiflette bake shown above took place prior to Covid Times.

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheesehead-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca, is chairman of Canadian Cheese Awards and founder of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. He’s hardly ever met a cheese he didn’t like.