Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

We are fortunate to live in the same village as the country's leading authority on cheese. We'd already started making cheese before I realised she lived here. It's a coincidence and a really good one. Almost as good as Blur's guitarist being the first person I clapped eyes on when I moved to London.

You never know where your next encounter with genius is coming from. There she was, in the field over the road in a big tent full of cheese of all descriptions, at the judging of the cheese of the year. She was surrounded by the country's cheese-makers and experts, chefs, foodies and restaurateurs, bossing them all around and exuding authority.

She came over last night and showed Claire how to make apple chutney. A house never smells as much like a home as when pickle is being made. It creates a warm, Christmassy, comforting atmosphere - domestic bliss. Every large pot and pan, large knife and kitchen surface was in use. I had a band in the studio and it was hard to drag them away; they all wanted to know more about pickle. Now the kitchen is full of sparkling jars brimming with the house sauce. The only drawback is that we can't eat it for six months. Apparently it gets better the longer it's kept, mellowing like fine wine.

We've only got half a dozen trees but it's hard to appreciate quite how many apples that represents. When the orchard was planted, houses didn't have central heating or insulation and boxes of apples were stored in the loft, or so the old lady who was born in my bedroom says. It's hard to keep apples and meet modern building regulations.

Everyone should go and stand in an orchard at this time of year. They are enchanting in the mist: the lush grass, the abundant fruit. It's a religious experience, a religious image. Agriculture has no glamour in people's minds. It has an image problem. The farmer is seen as a struggling, supermarket-whipped, grant-guzzler. It's supermarkets that are depressing. Farms are wonderful places.

We've got sheep too. Most are out to pasture at the moment, leading their sheep lives. There's no doubt it's quite nice being a sheep, while it lasts. My favourite image of sheep is en masse in the barn, with the sun beating in on the straw. It's so cosy, all wool and bedding. Sheep would have no idea how to make themselves that comfortable.

I'm always trying to have big, global ideas. I think all boys do. Cheese was a little sideline I got into by accident while working on an idea for a robot that could play the guitar. Unfortunately, nobody wanted that robot except me. I still think it's a winner, but everyone wants to know about the cheese. It has exorcised the ghost of Oasis and is the thing people seem to ask me about these days. I can see the neighbours who have swimming pools wishing they had built cheese workshops instead. You can't really have a less global phenomenon than local cheese. It's good for the soul.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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