The Rock-and-Roll Cheesemaker: A Q&A With Blur's Alex James
Alex James Photo © Adam Gasson
After Britpop superstars Blur first split up in the early 2000s, bassist Alex James got married and moved to a farm in the British countryside—and then he started making cheese. Now, James is more involved in fermented milk than he is in music: He writes newspaper columns in the UK about food, and in August he is curating a music and food festival with Jamie Oliver called The Big Feastival, which will be held on James’s 200-acre farm. Unfortunately, his three artisanal cheeses—Little Whallop (goat cheese washed in brandy and wrapped in a vine leaf), Goddess (a rich, semi-soft cows' milk cheese), and Farleigh Whallop (a goat cheese log rolled in thyme)—are unavailable in the US. This spring James is back on tour with Blur for a handful of big festival shows, including Coachella. Just a few hours before going onstage, James sat down with blogger Zach Brooks to talk farming, Sting’s olive oil and cheese. A portion of the interview is below; to download their entire talk, head to foodisthenewrock.com.
What's it like having a farm in the Cotswolds?
Buying a farm is like running a small bankrupt country. It’s not just a house—a farm—it’s a business. It’s not grand. It has to work. We’ve got a couple of hundred acres and the first two years was like: Hedges, what are you supposed to do with hedges? And drains, and ditches, and there’s water going everywhere, and things are breaking and falling over and running away. And suddenly I found I was getting up earlier than I ever had. But I absolutely loved it. And I’ve always loved cheese, and it took two years to figure out that’s what we should be making on the farm.
When did you get the farm?
Ten years ago. I think farms probably are the natural habitat for the aging rock gentleman. It’s hard to think of somebody in a serious band who doesn’t live on a farm. Roger Daltrey lives on a farm. Paul McCartney lives on a farm. Sting lives on a farm. I tell you what: Sting’s olive oil is the benchmark celebrity food product. It’s absolutely knockout.
Can people buy Sting’s olive oil? Or do you trade it: “I’ll trade you a block of my blue cheese for a bottle of your olive oil”?
There’s a really limited amount. I’ve seen it only once. If you’re listening, Sting, I’m well up for some swapsies.
So how did the cheese thing happen?
I suddenly went from having a balcony as my outside space to being suddenly the ruler of this tiny kingdom that had stuff living in it and growing in it. I was just sort of gradually getting to grips with it all when somebody approached me saying, “I’m a cheesemaker,” and he wanted somewhere to make cheese. And I was like, “Really!” Because people used to throw cheese me at me when Blur was playing and would present it to me in hotel lobbies. It was sort of the one-word thing you used to describe me. Cheese is incredibly tasty stuff. Milk is such a mammalian elixir, isn’t it? And cheese is the ultimate distillation of milk. I do absolutely love cheese. In terms of running a business it would much better if I loved wine, beer, or coffee or something where the profit margins are much higher.
So how important is the quality of the milk vs. the process?
You can make an OK cheese out of OK milk. And you can make an OK cheese out of great milk. But you can’t make a great cheese out of OK milk. If you made a cheese with Guernsey milk instead of Holstein milk you’d get a much denser, creamier cheese. The rarest cheese in the world is reindeer cheese. They’re very hard to catch, and they don’t like being milked.
Do you have a desert island cheese?
A really good, mature, really hard artisan cheddar would probably be my desert island cheese, with pickled onion and a bit of pineapple. But the one I’m really excited at the moment is aged Gouda. But I think it sort of changes all the time. It depends on what time of day it is as well. Blue cheese, not a breakfast thing. But when it gets dark...it’s a good way to end the day, with a really smelly cheese before you go to bed.
Do you have favorite cheeses around the world?
My passion was definitely developed and informed and nurtured by touring with the band because we’d get cheese on the rider. It would just say “cheese,” so in France where cheese is called fromage, fromage doesn’t mean cheddar. Cheese means cheddar in Britain. If you say cheese, people will think cheddar. If you say fromage in France, that means Camembert probably. And formaggio in Italy, that means maybe Parmesan, maybe mozzarella. Queso in Spain means Manchego probably, which is made from sheep milk, hard cheese, really nutty, sweet, amazing. And it goes on and on all around the world.
What do you think of Kraft American cheese slices?
I’m a big fan of a bit of melty cheese on a burger. I’m not snobby about it.
Hear the entire interview with Alex James as a downloadable podcast on foodisthenewrock.com.