Alex James: rock star, musician, farmer, award-winning cheesemaker, writer, broadcaster, husband, father of five and thoroughly charming man.
Google Alex James and there will of course be mention of his former life as bass player and debauched but lovable rogue in Blur: but frankly, these days most of it is about cheese. In 2003, he left behind his Covent Garden bachelor pad and week-long trips to The Groucho Club, fell in love, got married and moved to a 200-acre farm in the Cotswolds. Five kids and numerous adventures in cheesemaking later, he's clearly a man who is more than content with his lot.
I'd heard that Alex is truly passionate about cheese – and having now met the one they call "rock god-turned cheese man" and "cheese fancier, Alex", and witnessed the enthusiasm he radiates when on the subject, I can confirm unreservedly readers – the man loves cheese.
With his rock and roll lifestyle very much enjoyed at the time, but very much a thing of the past, the poster child for British cheese settles into the dangerously cosy Whisky Bar at The Athanaeum in Mayfair to discuss why the country really is the only place for an 'ageing rock gentleman' to go, why any cheese situation is improved by beer and how he intends to apply rock 'n' roll marketing principles to cheese and blow everyone away.
Alex, you've been working with the team at The Athenaeum to create a whisky and cheese food pairing menu...can you tell us about that?
Yes, the range of flavours spanned by first class cheese and whisky is so vast that matching them can be quite a tricky business, but we gave it a good go! It's actually quite a task and you have to approach it quite methodically – if you have, say, 12 cheeses and 12 whiskies you then have to try 144 different combinations – that's just how the process works and each pairing will produce something completely different. But that's the kind of challenge that I relish! We're confident we've found the ultimate combinations of amazing whisky and fine cheese for the menu.
Part of being an ageing rock gentleman is that you get asked to judge lots of things. The interesting thing about food judging is that everyone can tell which the nice one is – people rarely disagree. It's not like music where some people like one kind of music and some like another – there's actually something universally readable when something is intrinsically good. One of the great things we did was to add a splash of whisky to some cream cheese and that created something really special – and that's something anyone could try doing. You could actually use a not particularly spectacular cream cheese and a not particularly spectacular whisky and get something quite spectacular, which is what I'm all about. It's like instant Christmas.
People used to beat each other up with art at dinner parties didn't they, but I think you can do the same with cheese and biscuits – impress your friends...
So, is whisky and cheese the new wine and cheese?
Well, this is sort of gastronomic high-diving – really powerfully flavoured cheese and really powerfully flavoured whisky – a good starting point for people would be cheese and beer: any cheese situation is improved by beer. You can eat any cheese with lager and it will be fine – it's not like whisky and cheese, where you have to be really careful and you can have car crashes and clashes. Beer and cheese is a good place to start.
Alex, I see now just how into cheese you are – where did your passion for it come from?
Yeh, it was always 'cheese person turned rock star' – just temporarily. When I was a kid – growing up in the Seventies - there just wasn't the variety there. Really, we were still recovering from the war and from rationing - and because the government decided it would never let the country run out of food again, the British food industry became all about producing volume as opposed to variety or quality. That's still a problem we have here. When the French go shopping the first question they ask isn't: "How cheap is it?", it's: "How nice is this?" and food is the cheapest luxury we can have, so it's worth spending money on.
But how I got into it was that my grandad was a chef and ran a hotel, so he taught me how to cook. I think if your dad is a chef then you go one of two ways – you either get really into it or you just think – the food here's great - no need to cook! So my dad taught me different things, like how to play the piano and my grandad taught me how to cook. Food was always quite important for us. It's a brilliant way to connect with people. And I've just always loved it - they used to throw cheese at me in Japan when I was on stage – it was what Smash Hits said about me: "Likes: Cheese" so the fans brought it to gigs and threw it at me.
Is food an important part of your relationship with your kids [Alex has three sons and two daughters]?
It's a brilliant way to connect with children and it's amazing what they do like. One of them likes Caws Cenarth, the Supreme Champion at this year's British Cheese Awards, which is quite a 'challenging' cheese...there's an age when they'll try anything and then I think they get a bit nervous again as they get older.
Did you buy your farm with a view to becoming a cheesemaker – was it always part of the plan?
No, not at all. I think people overlook how difficult it is to work out what it is you really want to do. The most difficult thing you've ever got to decide is what you want to do. We bought the farm on our honeymoon and Blur was sort of disintegrating and we had met and fallen in love very quickly and it had alienated me from a lot of my friends, falling in love...I think it does actually, when you really fall for somebody it affects the people closest to you. So, I moved to the country, with a woman I didn't know very well, with no job, in a completely new area – and I just started writing a column in The Independent about that cultural change.
I thought I was doing something quite reckless and romantic, but I've since realised it's a total cliché – there's really nowhere else for an ageing rock gentleman to go – we live on farms. We either live on farms or we write operas – those are the only two options. I tried writing operas but now I'm doing an album of lullabies with old rockers – one of Deep Purple and I'm going after one of Led Zeppelin... Anyway, we bought the farm basically because we fell in love with it and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and just wanted to stay there, but it was a derelict ruin – the fields and woods and everything.
My wife and I had been living there for about two years and then one day there was a guy who was looking for somewhere to make cheese and I wrote about it in my column and my editor called and said: "Cheese – I love it – write me a feature." My wife's a huge cheese fan too, but it took two years of us living on the farm, loving cheese more than anyone else in the world, before we got started.
You've since become the poster child for British cheese – do you feel a responsibility to help take the industry forward?
I will be taking it to the grave won't I: "Alex James: He loved cheese," but that's great – cheese needs a face – and there's so much more you can do with it than is being done at the moment. I'm developing a range of cheeses that will be coming out in spring – it's all hush-hush for now, but I've gained control of a sort of cheese skunk works in Somerset and I've got a sort of Willy Wonka-type cheese factory and I'm gonna blow them all away. I'm going to apply some rock 'n' roll style marketing principles to cheese. It's all going to happen around September, when we have the festival at the farm. [Alex is opening the gates to his Cotswolds farm from 9-12 September 2011 for his annual festival Harvest, a 'lovingly curated end-of-summer celebration of the very best of the British food scene alongside a soundtrack of the finest bands around.']
Can you see yourself diversifying into other areas or will it always be cheese for you?
I think there's still a lot of fun to be had with cheese. I've been to Burkina Faso and talked to a lady living in a mud hut with no teeth about cheese. Blur – that would have taken a bit of explaining, but cheese... Being in a rock band gives you everything you want when you're 21 – it's booze, girls and getting on aeroplanes...and being stupid, which was brilliant then, but it's funny how it all changes with the advancing years.
You're a farmer, cheesemaker, writer, broadcaster, husband, you've got five kids – how do you fit it all in?
I think the more you do, the more energy you get – it's an exciting time – the cheese world needs something and I'm up for it. It's just exciting. It's not work, it's play: it's fun time – let's not pretend that it isn't. And I just don't think it gets any more glamorous than posh cheese and whisky at The Athenaeum.