From a glass case containing more than 450 different cheeses, Afrim Pristine pulls out a half-wheel of Dutch Picobello and shaves off several delicate curls for his visitors to try.
"It's like candy," Pristine says, encouragingly. "It's really nutty and sweet."
Given the opportunity, Pristine will speak at length about this cheese and any of the multitude of others offered at Toronto's Cheese Boutique, the family business his grandfather started in 1970. He can tell you where and how they were made, who made them, how long they have aged, and in many cases, the diets of the goats, sheep or cows whose milk produced them.
"The 450 cheeses, I'm telling you, not one is similar to the other," he says. "There may be nuances and characteristics [that seem alike], but when you smell it, when you feel it, when you taste it, when you see where it's from, they're all very, very different."
If every cheese tells a story, then Pristine is a master storyteller, eager to share the minute details of each tale. It is for this reason that the 32-year-old cheesemonger was recently bestowed the title of "maître fromager" by the France-based Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, an exclusive association representing more than 5,000 cheese wonks around the world.
Pristine is the sixth Canadian to receive the maître fromager title, awarded to those who demonstrate exceptional cheese knowledge and are recognized within their community.
"Afrim has been recognized because he's so active," says Louis Aird of the Canadian dairy processor Saputo, who is the Canadian ambassador of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. "I think [of] all the people I know all over the country, he's the one who has more passion about cheeses and he knows his cheese so well."
It is perhaps no surprise that most Canadians, including some cheese experts, know little about the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. One needs a recommendation to become a member, and the Guilde holds regional induction ceremonies, like the one held at Casa Loma in Toronto on Feb. 19 to recognize Pristine and other local cheese aficionados, only once every four years.
What's more, the association, founded in 1969 to promote cheese knowledge and connect like-minded cheese professionals, confers obscure rankings rooted in European history. Besides the maître fromager (cheese master), it recognizes lower-ranking titles, like garde et juré (guard and judge), prud'homme (educator) and more prestigious posts, including ambassador and provost. (At the Feb. 19 ceremony, Pristine's older brother Agim Pristine was also honoured with a "garde et juré" distinction.) "All these names are from the 16th century," Aird explains. "All these people – the provost, the prud'homme – they were people working for the king to bring up the money from the taxes."
For Afrim Pristine, who is not only a purveyor but an affineur (one who ages and ripens cheeses to peak flavour), receiving the maître fromager title is "a pretty big deal," since it acknowledges the traditions that his father, Fatos, and grandfather, Hysen, passed down to him and his three brothers, who all have a hand in operating the shop, as well as the vitality and enthusiasm he brings to the family business.
Pristine says he works up to 85 hours a week, handling customers at the store, supplying his products to top kitchens and hotels (esteemed restaurants Nota Bene, Canoe and Scaramouche all use his products), and leading classes and workshops.
"The whole point of this is to really kind of get people excited about what we're excited about," he says. "It's one of my talents."
It is no wonder that Pristine has such an interest. Cheese is one of the first foods he ever tasted, and helping his grandfather at the business, doing simple chores like stocking bread, are among his fondest childhood memories.
"It's funny," Pristine says. "When I was in grade school, all my friends made fun of me: 'Your parents own a cheese store. Your parents own a cheese store.' Now all those same people want to be my best friend because I own a cheese store."
Acknowledgment from the Guilde is not just a personal achievement, nor even merely an achievement for the family, says Pristine's father Fatos. It is a boon for the Canadian cheese industry as well.
"It means Canada is getting to be recognized at the world level by countries which consider themselves to be the best in the world," the senior Pristine says.
The patriarch says he could not be more proud of his sons.
"Me and my wife, we are so lucky to have these boys," he says. "They love what they're doing. And to be honoured – that their peers consider them to be at that level – it's a great honour."