Blur's Alex James spends rather more time making cheese than playing the guitar and has now gained listings in Sainsbury's, as he tells Ronan Hegarty
Not many cheesemakers can boast they spent the summer playing bass in front of thousands of adoring fans, but then Alex James is no ordinary cheesemaker.
The Blur bassist, who has just finished a series of emotionally charged comeback gigs including a tour de force at Glastonbury and a three-night residency in Hyde Park, is looking forward to resuming duties as an artisan cheesemaker. "We've kind of got that out of our system now," he says, relieved. "Right now I'm going on holiday for three weeks and am looking forward to getting back to the cheese after that."
Having shed the pounds and country gent tweed clobber for the pop uniform of old for the reunion, James is not, however, returning to his old jet-setting ways he's off to Bournemouth where he'll be looking out for the local delicacy, pea fritters. He is passionate about food and British food in particular, so much so he was recently signed up by Sainsbury's to promote its Eat Britain campaign.
His latest creation takes its inspiration not, surprisingly, from a Blur song but from a New Order number. Blue Monday, a soft creamy blue cheese, has just been listed in 60 Sainsbury's stores at £1.55 for a 100g wedge. Until Sainsbury's, James' cheese operation was a fairly low-key affair, supplying a small number of specialist shops, delis and some budget stores.
James started making cheese when he turned his back on a famously debauched rock & roll lifestyle in 2003. "Cheese is simply the tastiest thing there is and making it is something I love doing," he enthuses. "Food has really been the thing for this decade in the same way that art was during the nineties."
Despite his passion for cheesemaking, his transition from indie idol to cheesemaker extraordinaire did not go completely smoothly. He talked openly in the press about creating a new cheese for some time, but failed to deliver the goods until 2007 when he drafted in his neighbour and fellow cheese lover, Juliet Harbutt, to help. The pair formed a company called The Evenlode Partnership and soon after their first cheese, Little Wallop, was born.
Named after a Cotswolds village near James's new home, the cheese quickly gain critical approval and listings in specialist retailers. It was followed by the similarly Cotswolds-inspired Farleigh Wallop.
Gaining shelf space with a major retailer does not mean James is planning to take on Cathedral City any time soon. "We're never going to make tonnes of the stuff," he admits. "It's a small production and that's what I love most, fiddling with new cheeses. I'm really just winging it."
While he may not have any plans to dominate the cheese world the way Blur did the charts, James has plenty of zany ideas to shake up the category. "I look at what chefs like Heston Blumenthal are doing and I don't think we have scratched the surface of what we can do with cheese. Nobody has tried setting it on fire or developing an exploding cheese in a can," he says, not entirely joking.
If he manages to sell this one to Sainsbury's, the retailer will surely have more than just use-by dates to worry about.