Photo credit: Steven Elphick
Afrim Pristine has a passion that was given to him by his family—cheese. He practically grew up at Cheese Boutique, a now four-generation cheese and gourmet food store, owned by his family. Although the store typically carries on average about 500 kinds of cheese, Afrim’s curiosity keeps him learning about cheeses and cheesemaking across the globe, which environments are best for maturing cheeses and which processes and variables bring them to life. He travelled. Europe was an obvious stop (with a Southern Italian mom and an Albanian dad). But he didn’t stop there. He observed, tasted and took in all he could about cheeses with a hunger fueled by the passion he was raised with.
Eventually, Afrim became the world’s youngest Maître Fromager and a renowned expert. He came back to Cheese Boutique, and when he was approached by a publisher to write his story, he decided to make it a beginner’s guide to enjoying cheeses at every meal. He focuses on helping everyday people and chefs alike to understand the flavour profiles as well as storage dos and don’ts.
As Afrim points out, cheese is not a trend; it’s not going anywhere. The industry continues to adapt for example to an interest in products for those with lactose intolerance (featuring and creating lactose-free and marketing the many existing kinds of cheese that are already low or no lactose) as well as vegan cheeses. Afrim wants his customers and readers to be as comfortable and in love with cheese as he is.
Following are questions we asked to get to know Afrim a little better:
Do you have a lucky charm in the kitchen?
My microplane! I can’t grate cheese without it.
What’s the last thing you burned?
My forearm, true story…
Your favourite spice?
Sumac. I grew up eating a lot of Turkish food, I adore sumac!
What makes you “kitchen angry”?
When people put hard rules on food.
No such thing in my kitchen. In my opinion, food is personal.
Latest flavour combination you discovered?
Cheese and seafood. Yup, that’s right, it works very well when you take your time and pair contrasting flavour combinations.
What’s your most extravagant purchase?
A 600 dollar shun knife, but technically I just stole it from The Cheese Boutique, but nonetheless, it’s extravagant!
Favourite song in the kitchen?
Sinister kid from The Black Keys.
What’s your comfort food?
What’s your most essential tool?
Again… the microplane.
If you could change anything in the food industry, what would it be?
The perception that success is easy in the food industry. Blood, sweat and tears – that’s what it takes to succeed.
Favourite smell in the kitchen?
What’s your bad habit?
What do you admire in other chefs?
I admire work ethics and dedicated chefs.
What or who is your greatest inspiration?
My greatest inspiration is my dad – very easy answer!
The dish you are the proudest of?
I made a grilled ravioli at an event at Langdon Hall with Ontario peas, creme fraiche and amazing pecorino cheese. It was super tasty.
What’s your end of the world menu?
Hard questions, but more than likely it would be a burrata and tomato salad – ideally the world ends in the summer so the tomatoes are amazing.
Then my mom’s famous pasta fagiloi, which is a simple, rustic, one pot, pasta with beans, ham hock and lots of love.
For dessert, a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano and a few strawberries.
Your favourite advice or quote?
Overcharge and over deliver.
Recipe: The Most Delicious Spanish Rice Ever by Afrim Pristine
When I asked Afrim Pristine why this was his favourite recipe in his newly released cookbook For the Love of Cheese he gave me a pragmatic answer: “Because people underestimate how good rice and cheese are together.” This particular way of pairing rice and cheese brings him back to his time in Spain, learning how to make cheese and how to eat it at soccer stadiums.
It’s hard for a cheese lover to pick one recipe that they could eat every day! Most would go for a recipe that uses many different kinds of cheese, so they have fewer recipes to choose from. But, for Afrim, his favourite recipe is so simple and flavourful that he would just prefer staying home and cooking it rather than going out. Besides the creaminess and the bewitching cheesy aroma of the dish, this Spanish recipe also is dear to his heart because of the nostalgia he feels while eating it.
Her is how Afrim tells the story of the dish: “Zamorano is one of my favourite Spanish cheeses. It’s made from sheep’s milk and is typically aged for 18 months. Think manchego but bolder, sharper, and much better looking. I was introduced to this cheese in Spain back in 2007. When I was in Barcelona, I got tickets to an FC Barcelona versus Real Madrid soccer match. In the soccer world, this is like Batman versus Superman, Manning versus Brady, Godzilla versus King Kong. It was an epic match, with some of the greatest players ever — David Beckham, Fabio Cannavaro, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, and Ronaldinho, to name a few. But as great as that game was, I was almost more impressed by the concession stand’s offerings: deep-fried pork rinds, mini paella, and ham and cheese on a crusty baguette. And not just any ham and cheese—this was acorn-fed pata negra ham, and 18-month-old Zamorano cheese. The sandwich was so tasty that I ate 3 of them during the game. The depth of flavour in the cheese is equally amazing with rice.”
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Unsalted butter, for greasing
1 cup (250 ml) uncooked white rice
4 medium plum tomatoes, halved
½ medium white onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
¼cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium serrano pepper, finely chopped
½ cup (125ml) fresh shelled green peas (good-quality jarred peas will do too)
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1 small Yukon potato, peeled and finely chopped ½ cup (125ml)
14% sour cream
1 bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
5 oz (140g) grated Zamorano cheese
- Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C).
- Lightly grease a medium baking sheet with unsalted butter.
- In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring 2 cups (500ml) of water to a boil, and stir in the rice. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer for approximately 20 minutes, then remove from the heat. Do not stir.
- While the rice is cooking, place the tomato halves, onion, and garlic in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, flipping once, until the veggies are evenly browned. Remove from the heat, and let stand at room temperature until completely cool.
- Purée the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor.
- Drain any remaining liquid from the rice.
- Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the serrano pepper, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes until tender. Add the rice, puréed vegetables, peas, carrots, potato, and sour cream. Season with cilantro and salt to taste. Cook for approximately 7 minutes, stirring, or until all the vegetables are tender and the rice is browned. Mix in the grated Zamorano cheese. Allow the cheese to melt before serving.