Cordon Blur – how Alex James rocked the cheese world

Alex James
Alex James
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You’re lucky if you can drag Alex James out of his “foodio”, as he dubs the converted outbuilding where he develops his cheese.

“I used to spend my days in the studio writing and recording songs and now I spend all day in the foodio experimenting with cheese. I get as much excitement about developing a new cheese as I ever did out of writing a song,” says James.

As bass player with one of the biggest bands of the nineties, Alex James is first to admit that he lived a bit of a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Living out of a suitcase, getting wasted at the Groucho Club and behaving pretty much as you would expect a pop star to do.

But then nearly ten years ago that all changed.

He met his wife Claire at a time when Blur was disintegrating, after having been chart toppers and even making the 10 o’Clock News when their single Country House beat Oasis’s Roll With It to the number one spot.

It was while he and Claire, a video producer, were on honeymoon that he surprised everyone by selling his bachelor pad in Covent Garden and buying a run-down 200-acre farm in the Cotswolds.

“At the time I thought it was the most romantic of gestures, but then I realised that all I was doing was following the clichéd tradition of nearly every ageing rock star. Even Roger Daltrey lives on a farm. It is what we do; it’s our natural habitat.”

He says it took him a year living on the farm before he started making cheese.

“I’m amazed it took so long,” he says.

Hearing Alex James talk about cheese is like listening to a great artist talk about his favourite painting.

He just loves the stuff.

“Most rock stars used to get knickers thrown at them, I used to get cheese,” he jokes.

“First I started making ‘posh’ cheese and I ended up winning an award for my goats’ milk Little Wallop which I was very proud of”. He brims with pride as if talking about one of his five children.

“I was so excited about having some of my own cheese in the fridge. But sometimes you want to try making something else.”

He refers to his range of “every day” cheeses which have just gone into Asda and which have been criticised by some food writers.

“It’s like your friends,” says the man who loves a good analogy.

“Sometimes you want to spend time with your posh friends but then sometimes you want to sit back and relax with your normal pals. I feel the same way about cheese.”

The new range which boasts names such as Spudsworth and Alex’s Best Ever Cheddar is not the sell-out that many seem to think it is.

This is not someone who has just added their name to a mass-produced product endorsement

“It came about because when I gave my cheese to the kids they started crying, they just didn’t like it.

“So about a year ago I went back to the drawing board. I locked myself in the foodio and tried to make the perfect cheese on toast. It’s the ultimate snack; you can have it any time of the day and night...”

There he goes again. I never knew there was so much to say about cheese on toast.

“I love posh cheese but I wanted to make an everyday affordable cheese that everyone can enjoy. I wanted to get more people eating cheese.”

So he locked himself away like a mad scientist and experimented with mixing together different types of cheese until he got the consistency he wanted.

“I mixed cheddar with mozzarella. I got something which tasted good and my confidence grew.

“When I was a child in France we ate a lot of the Raclette cheese. Where you have this massive piece of cheese and then put it in a contraption and melt it.

“Everyday after school I’d have a jacket potato with that cheese on and I loved it. I always wanted to recreate Raclette but that you could do in the microwave.”

So he mixed cheddar and Lancashire together and then added a secret third cheese which gave his mixture what he calls its “unctuous” quality and texture that he was trying to create.

“I wanted to run into the house shouting ‘I’ve got it’. I gave it to the kids and they loved it. Buoyed up by my success I started calling supermarket buyers and asked if they’d see me. Asda loved it and wanted me to create a whole range, so I started playing and that was how it came about.

“It is really good fun. Coming up with a recipe is every bit as creative as writing music.”

The Alex James Presents range, which all cost £2, includes, Cheddar and Tikka Masala wedge, Cheddar and Tomato Ketchup bread-shaped slices, Cheddar Spudsworth melting cubes and Alex’s Best Ever Mature Cheddar

Having been rather sceptical about the benefits of cheese cubes you microwave and pour over a baked potato, I was pleasantly, if not very, surprised when I tested Spudsworth on my children. It went down a storm and really did resemble a French Raclette type cheese.

He seems to enjoy naming the cheese nearly as much as he does creating it.

“The children named Spudsworth,” he says proudly. “There is something very satisfying about naming cheese.”

It is understandable after giving so much of himself to the process that he gets slightly irritated by food writers who have criticised the range.

“There is a lot of pretension in the food world. A lot of journalists have missed the point. Ninety per cent of the population is really disconnected from good food. I could have given the cheese posh names but that isn’t what they are about.

“I wanted them to be accessible, cheap and convenient. People recognise me as someone who loves cheese. I can walk down the street and make people think cheese.”

Makes a change from Britpop I suppose.

“I could have added sun-dried tomatoes to my cheddar but it was actually a food critic who suggested trying tomato ketchup because it was his guilty pleasure. I’d been messing around with different combinations of tomatoes and not getting anywhere, one quick squirt of tomato ketchup and it was instantly delicious.”

I wonder, as he waxes lyrical about cheese, whether he misses the days of Damon and the boys. Blur recently got back together for a tour.

“It was great doing it all again,” he says. “I’d convinced myself that I didn’t really miss it, but when we did it all again it was really good. But that lifestyle is better suited to the young kids.”

At 43 he makes himself sound ancient, but then again with five young children he might feel older than he looks.

He recently brought the two loves of his life, music and food, together at his Cotswolds farm when he organised Alex James’s Harvest Festival. Groups such as The Feeling played alongside demonstrations from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Yotam Ottolenghi as well as plenty of things for the children.

“It was great, there was something for everyone. But I couldn’t believe the reaction to the chefs. People were queuing up to see them. Chefs have become the new rock stars.” Well he should know.