For Afrim Pristine, cheese is a way of life. His grandfather founded the beloved Cheese Boutique in Toronto’s west end in 1970, and now Pristine – who was granted the exclusive “maître fromager” title by the France–based Guilde Internationale des Fromagers in 2013 – and his two brothers run the gourmet grocer that carries 550 cheeses from approximately 35 countries, as well as CB Bottega, a café and gelato shop they opened last year. Pristine recently earned another title, too: host of Food Network Canada’s docuseries, Cheese: A Love Story, which took him from Quebec to Switzerland meeting acclaimed cheesemongers and tasting local varieties for the first season’s six episodes. “I love speaking the language of cheese,” says Pristine. “It was a humbling experience to get to know producers from all over who I respect, asking questions and learning infinitely more about the world of cheese.”
The co–owner of Toronto’s Cheese Boutique and host of Food Network Canada’s Cheese: A Love Story on his love for Marvel, cheese vending machines in Switzerland and what he packs – and brings back – when seeking out far–flung fromage.
enRoute What’s your packing style?
Afrim Pristine I’m an overpacker – you never know if a chef’s jacket or fancy cheese knives are needed. My fiancée showed me how to roll my clothes and she usually helps me pack, too.
ER In advance or last–minute?
AP I start a few days in advance and fine–tune until it’s time to leave. I like to have options, especially when filming, but I always bring two pairs of Lululemon pants and my lucky Black Panther T–shirt – I’m a huge Marvel fan.
ER Top travel hack
AP My fiancée also turned me on to packing cubes. They help me stay organized, especially when I change hotels several times during a trip.
ER What was it like to travel through four different countries for Cheese: A Love Story?
AP We shot the whole series over 30 days, and we were always on the move, never in a hotel for longer than two days. I had never travelled this way, or this extensively, before. It was the job of a lifetime meeting the best chefs and cheesemakers in the world.
ER The six episodes highlight B.C., Greece, Toronto, Quebec, France and Switzerland. What surprised you most of all the places you visited?
AP In Switzerland there are cheese vending machines on the streets! Look for Cheese Xpress machines, which feature hyperlocal varieties from different regions. The Swiss are serious about their cheese.
ER Where would you recommend heading for a cheese–focused trip?
AP Go to Paris or Rome, which are well known for their cheeses and offer the familiar classics. Pick four or five cheese shops to visit, let the cheesemongers guide you and immerse yourself in the culture and the local varieties. In Paris, Fromagerie Nicole Barthélémy is probably the best cheese store I have ever been to, and Fromagerie Laurent Dubois is also amazing. In Rome, I recommend checking out La Tradizione and Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina. Ask to try types you’ve never heard of – you will always remember that moment of buying and eating it.
ER What are the most underrated destinations for cheese?
AP B.C. was one of my favourite episodes of Cheese: A Love Story. It was beautifully shot and we showcased cheese from Salt Spring Island and Comox. Ontario and Quebec are cheese powerhouses in Canada, but B.C. is creating world–class products, too. Internationally, Portugal is underrated big time. It’s the only country in Europe where the sheep, goats and cows graze on grass 365 days a year, an amazing terroir for cheese. Other countries worth exploring are in the Balkans, including Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and especially Croatia. They do fresh and breakfast cheeses very well, like Škripavac, a mild, tangy and sweet cheese, and Basa, a fresh cream cheese.
ER Do viewers come into Cheese Boutique requesting specific cheeses they have seen on the series?
AP Every day! We featured a barrel–aged feta from Greece on the show – it’s the best feta I’ve ever had – and many customers want to try it. People are requesting the different types of Swiss Gruyère, too. And because of Cheese: A Love Story, we now offer more varieties from B.C. I love how people get so excited to try new cheeses.
ER How many varieties of cheese do you carry at Cheese Boutique?
AP We have more Canadian representation on our counter than Italy and France combined. We offer about 550 cheeses from approximately 35 countries around the world. Besides Canada, we predominately source cheeses from Europe, as well as some from South America and a few from the Middle East.
What’s in Afrim’s bag?
If I enjoy a wine while travelling, I love buying another bottle to bring home. I picked up this 2016 Château Coutet Saint–Émilion Grand Cru, one of my favourites, at a shop in Paris while filming Cheese: A Love Story.
This is the best at keeping water cold while I travel. Pink is also my favourite colour – it’s fun and positive.
I wear this hat at work and when I fly. It was given to me by Drake’s producer, Noah “40” Shebib, a close friend I’ve known since high school.
I got this bag from Food Network Canada, and it carried my life when we were shooting – a second set of clothes, my schedule, phone, everything!
My steamer kept me looking TV–ready during filming. It fits in my Patagonia bag and all it takes is five minutes and I have freshly steamed shirts and pants.
Antique cheese knives and truffle shaver
Everywhere I go, I look for antique tools of the trade to add to my collection, which I display at Cheese Boutique. I got the olive wood truffle shaver from a farmer I went truffle hunting with in Tuscany in 2005. The cheese cutter, used for semi–soft cheese, dates back to the 1930s; I bought it in Paris when I was 15.
I never bring back touristy trinkets or clothes from a trip – it’s always about the alcohol and cheese for me. This is Bleu d’Élizabeth made by Fromagerie du Presbytere; we featured its cheesemaker, Jean Morin, in the Quebec episode. And it happens to pair perfectly with the Château Coutet Saint–Émilion Grand Cru.
Afrim’s Tips for Travelling with Cheese
If you’re bringing cheese into Canada, make sure it is pasteurized (unpasteurized milk products are not allowed). You don’t need a cooler bag: Just ask the shop to vacuum–seal the cheese, then wrap it in a towel and pack it in the corner of your checked luggage. It will stay cool stored in the cargo hold. Avoid soft and creamy cheese and opt for ones that are firm or aged. Consider something from a small producer that only makes a few wheels a day. Talk to the cheesemonger for advice – trust them like you do your doctor.
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The full first season of Food Network Canada’s Cheese: A Love Story is available to watch through STACKTV with Amazon Prime Video Channels.