Can you imagine Liam Gallagher espousing the virtue of a perfectly blended Coquetdale? Or Jarvis Cocker enthusing for hours on the subject of Wensleydale? Maybe not, but Blur’s Alex James has proven that there can be a career after Britpop in the world of artisan cheese. We talked to the former-bassist-turned-farmer about why he chose Kingham as the place to kick off his cheese-making career.
“There aren’t really many famous farmers, are there?” asks Alex James – and the answer is undoubtedly no. At least, only one person springs to mind when you think of someone who has effortlessly segued from their past career as a member of one of the most successful Britpop bands to their current vocation as an artisan cheese-maker and all-round agriculturalist.
But former Blur bassist James is adamant that actually there’s little difference between being at the forefront of the Cool Britannia movement and getting stuck in on his Oxfordshire farm in order to create award-winning dairy produce.
“All business is tough; as a musician I had to fight for everything I wanted and now I still have to fight for everything I want,” the 48-year-old surmises. “If you do something that’s truly great then that puts you in a very strong negotiating position. So you’ve got to start with something that you really believe in and which is great, or just tell everyone to go stuff it! I’m happy to play with anyone on that basis.”
James can now boast of two separate cheese ranges – the opulent creamy Shropshire blues and soft goats’ cheeses, along with the everyday series that boasts unusual flavour combinations like cheddar and tikka masala, or even ketchup. But the move from the stage to the 200-acre plot in Kingham got off to a near-perilous start.
“When we bought the farm 10 years ago, it was the worst time ever in history to be a farmer,” he explains. “The guy I bought it off was a beef farmer and he’d been hit by BSE – Mad Cow Disease – and foot and mouth; it had been a horrendous time for farming and agriculture.
“But over the past 10 years the whole picture has really changed. Food is what’s happening in the UK at the moment and I think if you can find a niche as a farmer it’s never been a better time. If you can find something that nobody else is doing and do it well, there’s a real appetite for great food.”
While his former band shaped a generation of music that was as indisputably and inherently British as a bulldog drinking a cup of tea, James’ organic inspirations are more inspired by his food love affair with the continent.
“I love going to France – you see farmers’ markets with some old boy selling the apples he’s picked and they’re completely delicious,” he explains. “That’s how you want to buy an apple – off somebody who’s been growing apples all their lives and knows everything about it. I love the culture of farmers’ markets. I think we are getting it back here and it’s brilliant for farmers – if you can sell what you make directly to the person who is going to eat it, that’s the best possible way of doing it. It’s a really rewarding thing as well, seeing somebody actually eating what you’ve made, seeing their face light up. It’s very satisfying.”
James has even managed to merge his two passions – music and farming – as seamlessly as the aromas combined in his Alex James Presents Cheddar and Salad Cream Blankets. Since 2011, James has opened up his farm for the Harvest and Big Feastival events, which have seen the great and the good from both of James’ cherished industries – from Paloma Faith and Jamie Oliver to Jay Rayner and Basement Jaxx – come together in a celebration of food and tunes. It’s yet another example of the great strides being made to form a connection between the people creating the produce and the food fans who enjoy it.
“It goes back to the Second World War,” says James of this link between creator and buyer. “Britain ran out of food and it was rationed until 1954, so a whole generation – my parents’ generation – weren’t taught how to cook by their parents as they didn’t have any food and everyone had to eat horrible rations.
“There was only one sort of cheese made in Britain so recipes were lost, skills were lost and traditions weren’t passed down. It took a generation to get it all back. In the last 10 years Britain’s had the best beef in the world, even the best sparkling wine in the world. I think we’ve got great producers and people want to buy good food – and enterprising small farmers can be dynamic and sell directly to their customers.”