How to build the perfect board, nail fondue and more cheese tips to take into holiday entertaining season
Cheesemonger Afrim Pristine shares his wisdom and what goes onto his dream cheese board too
While no one season can truly stake its claim on cheese, Canadians are consuming more of it each year — especially as the holidays approach. And while many of us can make a killer grilled cheese with those classic orange slices, or bake a brie worthy of any appetizer table, entertaining season calls for a move beyond the basics that requires a little brushing up.
In the interest of getting up to speed, we called on cheesemonger Afrim Pristine, owner of Toronto's Cheese Boutique and author of the new cookbook For the Love of Cheese, to provide us with the cheesy wisdom we need to elevate our all festive gatherings. While Pristine estimates that he's sampled "about 2,500" different cheeses throughout his career, his allegiances still lay with humble staples like Parmigiano-Reggiano — "If there's one cheese I want in my fridge, it's that," — and more than anything, he just wants you to give blue a chance.
Read on for all of Pristine's insights into building the perfect cheese board, getting fondue juuuust right and taking your presentation to the next level by forgoing excess garnishes and focusing on the cheese itself.
What's your best advice for putting together a well-balanced cheese board?
I think the best thing to remember is variety. That's the best part about cheese, in my opinion. I think five is a great number... five or seven. And just hit every kind of cheese category. You want something soft, something goat, something sheep, something blue and then you want a firmer cheese, and maybe even one wild card that's just out of this world, stuffed with something or beer-washed, something like that.
Do you have a go-to for that wild card pick?
There's one called Monte Enebro and it's the most crazy-in-a-good-way cheese I've ever had in my life. It's from Spain and it's a goat's milk. It looks like a loaf of bread, like the moldiest loaf of bread you've ever seen. The rind is actually inoculated with the blue bacteria [that is] injected into blue cheese to make blue cheese blue. It's crazy. It's super goat-y and very aromatic and really salty from the rind. It's a very, unique cheese. If we have it in stock, it goes on all my cheese boards.
Fill in the blank: Every cheese board should have a ____________.
I'm on a mission to [make] everyone love blue cheese. I think the blue cheese we grew up eating was not the best quality and kind of metallic-tasting and over-processed. But now... blue cheeses are made so they're not, like, fire. They're not just salty, aggressive. Now, with really good quality, clean organic milk, blue cheese is awesome. So I think blue cheese is a cheese people tend to steer away from, but [to] put it on a board, enjoy with a bit of honeycomb and a fortified wine, is amazing. I also like to be a little different.
Okay, but if I really hate blue cheese, what should I sub in in its place? Are there any milder varieties that can act as kind of a 'gateway blue'?
You can get a milder actual blue cheese. It's like buying a Mercedes, there's different classes and they get more expensive, they get more bells and whistles. There's milder, medium and full-bodied blue cheese. But then there's also cheeses — not blue — which are kind of funky like a blue. Goat's milk... a very young, fresh, youthful goat's milk, it's very unique tasting like a blue. So maybe start with things like that, and then more of an aged goat's milk; it's very aromatic, very bold. That could be a gateway for sure.
What's the one thing that should never go on a cheese board?
I don't like hard, fast rules when it comes to food. Everyone's palate is a little different and mine's no better than yours, it's just a little bit more trained. Now, with that said, I don't love spicy stuff on my cheese board. I'm all for a cured meat, not a spicy cured meat. I think chili, and spice, and heat… they're hard to get off of your palate and when you're travelling through your cheese board, that flavour just lingers. Another thing is a lot of red fruits. Berries — like raspberries, blueberries, strawberries — are not great with cheese because they have a high sugar content. There's a lot of pectin in berries, and they're naturally sweet, so again, it kind of lingers on your palate. But, on the other side, water-based fruits like apples, pears, grapes, are awesome on a cheese board because there's good acidity and they cleanse your palate.
Do you have any tips for putting together a board on a budget? Where can we save vs. what's worth splurging on?
You can save really on the actual, specific cheese. Maybe if you have five cheeses, you buy three in that $20-30/kilo range and maybe you splurge and get one that's like, "Wow, I've never had that before", "Wow, it's aged in Barolo wine, I want to try that." So then it cuts down the overall purchase, so you're not getting five super expensive cheeses. Gruyere and beemster are some of the best value cheeses out there. They're $30-40/kilo, and they're both in my top ten of favourite cheeses. Another one, and this is not so much for the cheese board, but feta. Feta is like $15/kilo and it's one of my favourite cheeses.
Do you have any go-to ingredients or garnishes for instantly upping the presentation of a spread?
I think to have that traditional, vibrant orange — there's a cheese called mimolette, a lot of different kind of Dutch goudas [have] that beautiful orangey tinge, which really pops on a cheese board. So does blue. I like putting fruit-nut bread on a board, which really pops. And I think a lot of fruit. Grapes are beautiful, starfruit is beautiful, an apple is beautiful. That will definitely add colour as well.
What's the biggest mistake you see people make when serving or cooking with cheese, and how can it be fixed?
A big thing that I really wanted to showcase in my book [is that] you can use any cheese in cooking and it doesn't just have to be on a cheese board. It can be any style of cheese. A cheese you don't think of cooking with… manchego is awesome. One of the best. I put manchego in a paella, which, you don't really see cheese in a paella, but it works. For me, instead of seasoning and using salt and pepper, I'm using manchego instead. So I'm almost using cheese as the seasoning.
It's the end of the party and — gasp — there's some uneaten cheese left on the board. What are some easy or unique ways to use up those leftover bits (other than eating them whole)?
How about a cheese ball? Ten years ago I wouldn't have said this, but now, definitely. If you have a bunch of little cheese ends and rinds, chop them up and incorporate them into a cream cheese, or a mascarpone, or that kind of base, which is cheap. Roll it in toasted nuts, cranberries... maybe pistachios will work, maybe toasted walnuts. Or, you've got a little bit of manchego left over? Grate it into some rice, grate it into some pasta. Melted cheese can never really be bad, at the end of the day.
Do you have any tips for storing cheese so that it stays fresh as long as possible? Does the strategy differ from cheese to cheese?
To generalize, wax paper and tin foil for firmer cheeses — so two layers — first is the wax paper and then the tin foil on top. That really prevents the cheese from drying out when it's in your fridge; it's not exposed to the air but it can still breathe, as opposed to putting a little block of cheese in a Ziploc bag — moisture is just going to collect in the bag. For soft cheeses, it's tough because they start to dry out. One thing I always [say to] my clients is, buy what you need first and foremost. Cheese isn't something you buy in huge volumes. Go visit your cheesemonger more so you buy smaller bits, but more frequently. Ideally, you want to buy the cheese and consume it.
Are there any ways that other cultures serve cheese that we, in western cultures, may have overlooked (time of day, pairing etc.)?
Definitely… it's the style of the cheese that really dictates [how and when it's served]. So in Greece and the Balkans, where my background is, they don't eat a manchego-style cheese, because that's just not part of their cuisine. But feta is. You see that used a lot in breakfast. In Holland and in Scandinavia… they are big breakfast cheese-eaters because that's the style of cheese that they're eating. Gouda and Jarlsberg, those milder cheeses. The French, when do they eat their cheese? For dessert, or after dessert. That's when you've got a little bit of wine left over from your dinner — you want a blue cheese. Italians... they eat lunch; there's not really a term for it other than almost like a "table cheese". If you have a group of 10 Italians in Naples, and you're having your three-hour pranzo, there's a block of cheese the size of your head in the middle of the dining room table and at the end of that lunch, that cheese is gone — so it's one of those nibbling cheeses… Parmiggiano, Piave, Provolone. And I think in Canada, for cheese at least, we've adopted all of those… which is incredibly exciting.
Fondue is (finally) making a comeback, and it's one of those interactive dishes that's perfect for dinner parties around the holidays. What are your tricks for getting it just right?
I'm Swiss-trained, so I love fondue. Fondue is all about timing. This is not something you leave on your stove, you hope for it to melt, you go away, and it becomes magically delicious. Fondue is something that will take five minutes, and you need to constantly be stirring and watching it. Put the alcohol in first, and cook off the alcohol, so if you're using beer, or white wine, or Grand Marnier — there's no real wrong answer, any alcohol works because you're cooking off the alcohol and you just want the flavour of the booze. Then the cheese goes in. I do a big amount of the cheese...I would say about 100-150 grams per person. Put about ¾ of that in right away and get it stirring. You're going to see it start to melt. That [alcohol] is going to be absorbed by the cheese, and you're going to see the creaminess start to develop. That's when you can add a little bit more of the cheese. This cheese is really binding the other cheese, so that's where you're just constantly stirring it, medium heat — you don't want it too high, because then the fat will start to separate from the cheese and you get that oil on top. Now, if you see the fondue starting to get a bit runnier than you like, that's when you can add a thickening agent, like corn starch. Something natural. Corn starch will bind it so it becomes, like ooey-gooey, pull the spoon up and it just kind of falls down. That is fondue. Honestly, it's that easy. I like to throw a sprig of thyme at the end, so the heat from the cheese opens up the thyme. I'm doing it in a heavy metal pot and before I transfer it into my fondue pot, I rub the fondue pot in garlic, just so you get a bit of that earthiness from the thyme and that aroma from the garlic.
What's the best piece of cheese you've ever tasted and why was it so good?
I'd say [the Monte Enebro], but a very close second would be — and the timing is everything — really freshly made Italian burrata. To the point where you're actually in Italy, at the maker, having it warm. There's nothing like that, and it's very, very different than when you export it or you import it and you have it like three or four days after it's made. It's still great, but there's something about warm fresh burrata, where the milk is just running down your arms because it's so creamy and milky, it's pretty spectacular.
This interview has been edited and condensed.