Alex James: The cheesemaker and musician talks superstar chefs, Blur and bad habits


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Our food culture was a laughing stock until 20 years ago When rationing ended back in 1954, British food had a lot to catch up on. As a teenager I used to save up loads of money to go to France and spend it all on good food there. It may have been only 21 miles from England, but Calais tomatoes were a completely different proposition from Dover ones. On one exchange visit, instead of buying cigarettes and alcohol, I spent my money on juicy steaks from a butcher and delicious potatoes at a grocer, and had a feast.

Food has become the new rock'n'roll When Jamie Oliver was on stage at The Big Feastival [held at James' 200-acre farm] last year the crowd was as big as for Basement Jaxx. Chefs such as Gizzi Erskine and Valentine Warner are stars – food has become theatre.

Eating local produce was the great thing about touring I always had cheese on my rider and every country would leave me a different type. A promoter for a gig in Alsace, France, said, "I hear you like cheese," and he gave me a lot, and it was delicious. I don't want to go on about cheese too much, but I find it endlessly fascinating.

I needed something different after Blur I fell head over heels in love, got married and then me and my wife Claire wanted to run away together. So we bought a ruin of a farm in the Cotswolds and I've spent the past 10 years pouring my heart and soul into it, to become a biodynamic cheesemaker. At the time everyone from my mum to my accountant said "don't be an idiot".

Cheese is the ultimate mammalian-distilled elixir I was at a supermarket in Devon recently when a glum, bedraggled old man shuffled up to a cheeseboard, and put a small piece into his mouth. And as he began to savour the taste of it he began to straighten up, his whole face lit up and he looked at me wide-eyed, completely transformed by this cheese.

Food is the last great bastion of snobbery We can't all afford to eat artisan food every day and while my range of cheese flavours such as tikka masala [which James released two years ago, along with eight other flavours] was really nice, the range has been misunderstood by the critics [who claimed his products, such as tomato-ketchup cheese, were simply gimmicks]. I was just having a bit of fun really, and it's since been widely copied by big international brands.

Blur's songs bring back memories When I think of the single "Tender" [released in 1999], what it reminds me of now is playing Glastonbury in 2009. Something happened when we played there: it was a moment that made me realise Blur hadn't gone away, even after almost 10 years of not doing it. I remember thinking, this thing still lives and breathes. There were 150,000 people singing along and crying their eyes out – and I was one of them.

We're working on some new material We were in Hong Kong last month for a Blur gig and were due to head on to Taiwan and Tokyo afterwards, but the shows were cancelled. So we all ended up staying in Hong Kong and we went to the studio to record some new tracks, and it went incredibly well.

I've spent far too much time in hotels over the years And I've picked up some bad habits. Claire says the worst one is blowing my nose on towels. But I think there's something very resplendent about it.

Alex James, 44, is a musician and award-winning cheesemaker. Jamie Oliver and Alex James's food and music event, The Big Feastival, runs from 31 August to 1 September (