The world of cheese is ever-evolving and Afrim Pristine is a lifelong student of its multitude of flavours, textures and potential. Now, he’s hitting the road in an epic global journey on Cheese: A Love Story to check out some of the ways chefs celebrate cheese in all its forms.
For years, Afrim, who co-owns Cheese Boutique along with his brothers Agim and Ilir, has been gradually taking over the public-facing elements of the family business from father Fatos, now retired. Although he’s got the credentials — he’s a maître fromager (as part of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers) and has a knighthood conferred by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France — Afrim’s main skill is making cheese accessible and understandable to the general public along with the chefs who he counts as regular customers and friends. As the person behind the counter at Cheese Boutique, he’s spent 25 years figuring out how to assess peoples’ tastes and what to offer them, and we’ve asked him for his best techniques in figuring out the best cheese board to please your guests.
Related: Secrets From a Cheese Master
Ask the Right Questions
If you ask Afrim to make you a cheese board, be prepared for two things: to sample a lot of cheese and to answer a bunch of questions, from what you’re eating and drinking for dinner to what cheeses you like and dislike. “My job is to know what people want before they know they want it,” says Afrim. “The more I know about their tastes, the more I can factor into the decision about showcasing whatever cheese I think they’re going to like.”
We vary our food and drink to the seasons, but when it comes to cheese, one thing that’s often forgotten is the weather outside. “It’s summertime right now. In my opinion, I think a super fat, pungent French Burgundy Normandy style cheese is too much: it’s too heavy, aromatic, and pungent,” he says. For warmer weather, Afrim suggests lighter options such as delicate buffalo mozzarella, whipped herbed ricotta, a fresh young youthful goat cheese or a semi-soft, mild-mannered Ontario gruyère.
Be Willing to Experiment
Although people tend to cling to a few tried and true favourites and formulas when assembling a cheese board, Afrim encourages people to take their cheese exploration to a new level. “I don’t think there should be any hard and fast rules when it comes to cheese,” he says. On the show, Afrim was taken aback by chef and “Sorcerer of Entlebuch” Stefan Wiesner at Michelin-starred Gasthof Röessli, who served him Emmental baked with charcoal. At home, trying a curveball or an unexpected surprise on a cheese platter can bring a similarly memorable experience to the table. Afrim likes to astonish people with a piece of monte enebro. “It’s covered in greyish mould, like if you left a loaf of bread for a few days, and it’s goat’s milk unlike the majority of cheeses made in Spain from sheep’s milk. It’s creamier and funkier,” he says.
Make Smart Choices
Although variety is key to cheese boards, get creative with sizing according to your budget. “Have five to seven cheeses, but consider getting some smaller pieces to squeeze in a few extra flavours,” says Afrim. Having more choices allows your guests a better chance of finding something that they will enjoy, without necessarily raising the cost for you. “Not everyone is going to love a blue, but try to have a goat, sheep, semi-firm, a firm, blue, and a fresh cheese, hitting every category,” he says. “You can’t make everyone happy, but if someone walks away loving five of the seven cheeses, that’s all they’re going to remember.”
Don’t Buy in Bulk
Buying smaller quantities has other advantages when it comes to crafting a cheese board. “I never buy, or I never tell my customer to buy cheese in bulk. It has a life, and it does go off, especially if it is going in and out of the fridge, so buy what you’re going to enjoy,” says Afrim. “The maintenance, love, and care you give to cheese is equally important to it being made well with good quality milk and good technique. And a consumer’s job is not to store cheese, unless they happen to have a cheese cave—like we do. It’s my job here is to handle the cheese.”
However you construct them, cheese boards are both a unique expression of individual tastes and a way to share them with friends and family. Afrim sees cheese as a near-universal language that translates around the globe, bringing people together. “I love cheese, and I think a big part of this is showcasing the respect for such a simple ingredient: an ingredient we all love,” he says. “In this industry, like-minded people make magic.”
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