Maître fromagier Afrim Pristine grew up in his family business, now spanning several generations. The Cheese Boutique in Toronto caters to more than 120 Canadian restaurants, supplying chefs with locally sourced or hard-to-find cheeses and fills more than 300 orders per week. Pristine also published his first book last year, For The Love Of Cheese, which guides readers through his cheesy recipes and provides information on more than 55 different types of everyone’s favourite ingredient.
We sat down with Pristine to discuss his love of cheese and how it runs in his family, as well as getting the low-down on some of the best cheeses currently available to Canadian foodservice providers.
1. The Cheese Boutique has been in around for generations now. Did you always plan to take over the family business?
We are almost 49 years old now. Four generations — my brother and I are the third generation. I had always worked here (at the store) when I was a kid — I never had another job — but my intention was to become a teacher. It’s a long story, but when I was around 18 I decided to go full-time (and then some) in the family business to help my parents and my eldest brother, who had given me everything in life. I felt I owed it to help in any way I could. To be part of something bigger than you, as an individual, is quite special.
2. When it comes to Italian cheeses, which do you rank highest? Why?
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the most important cheeses ever made. It’s perfect to eat on its own, it’s versatile in cooking and pasta just isn’t pasta without it. It takes about 1,000 litres of milk to make one wheel. The science and history behind it is unparalleled.
Pecorino Romano is another classic from Italy, made from sheep milk. It’s perfectly salty and works great in simple pastas or shaved onto salads.
Robiola is a mixed-milk cheese from Piedmonte and one of the most underrated Italian cheeses, in my opinion. It’s creamy, funky and very unique. This cheese, on its own, with crusty bread and fresh grapes, is a great snack.
Piave is a Northern-Italian cow-milk, table-style cheese. This is a cheese that, during a long lunch, you just keep eating. It’s milky, nutty and simple in the best kind of way.
Burrata is the king of summer cheeses, in my opinion — really mild and screams for good tomatoes and flaky sea salt.
3. How about Canadian cheeses? Are there great local cheeses out there that can be effectively used for Italian-style cuisine?
Canadian cheeses are absolutely world-class. We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years and cheese awareness (among consumers and chefs) has never been higher. Why? Because we are excited about the beautiful cheese our country has to offer. We have the resources, we have the talent; good cheese has been a long time coming in Canada. It’s here to stay and only getting better.
We have a few producers here in Ontario with Italian heritage who make great Italian-style cheese — mozzarella di buffala, mascarpone, ricotta and burrata, for example.
4. Cheese is such an essential ingredient for Italian cuisine. Why is matching the right cheese for the right pizza or pasta so important?
Pairing cheese with food is important — not because there are rules when it comes to pairing (for me, anyway) but, most importantly, because you want the cheese to always complement the other ingredients in the pizza or pasta. When you have a great pairing between the cheese and other ingredients, they naturally elevate each other. Also — let’s be real — for pasta and pizza, it’s the cheese that makes [the dish] or breaks it.
5. Despite an on-going and growing plant-based food trend, cheese still seems as popular as ever. Do you think there has been a decline in cheese consumption over the past few years?
I will answer this question by saying: we’ve never sold more plant-based cheese [at The Cheese Boutique] than now. I don’t really think there has been a decline, but if people are eating plant-based diets and they’ve cut out cheese, they still want something to substitute that need for a cheese-style product.
6. What are your tips for buying and storing cheese for foodservice providers?
I would say, for small restaurants, buy only what you need and don’t buy large amounts of cheese if you don’t need to — rely on your cheesemonger to handle the cheese, as opposed to you storing it in your fridge.
If you are a bigger restaurant with more volume and need to buy larger quantities of cheese, I would recommend buying whole wheels, then cut and vac-pack in segments so the cheese doesn’t dry out. Buying in bulk should give you a price break, which is always nice in this industry.
We sell a lot of pre-grated cheese to our restaurant clients, since there is no waste for the restaurant buying it that way. The best thing, honestly, is to really know your cheesemonger — understand them and learn how they operate so they can assist you in a way that benefits you best. It’s so simple, but also crucial and it doesn’t happen all the time.
7. Any big plans for the future you would like to share with our readers?
Big plans! Can’t stop; won’t stop. Maybe another book, maybe a show of some sort and, at the end of the day, maximize the full potential of The Cheese Boutique — I feel we haven’t, yet. We need to get better and offer more to our long-time clients and new clients alike.