The pop magazines of the 1960s used to carry questionnaires with the stars of the day, featuring responses of endearing banality. You know the sort of thing: “Likes: world peace. Dislikes: Chinese food.” The band, Blur, peaked more recently, in the 1990s, but Smash Hits was still busy revealing their intimate desires. When they printed that Blur’s bass player, Alex James, loved cheese, crazed female fans started pelting him with the stuff on stage. James didn’t mind because he really did love cheese. And from being bombarded by it he’s now making it, in rural Oxfordshire. Not only artisan cheeses but also, launching this month, a cheese range for Asda. Taste Test was sent to sample the prototypes. The first task was to find James’s farm.
I stopped in the nearest village to ask the postman for directions. He gave me a knowing look as if to say, “Ah, you’re visiting those cheese hippies are you?” Then, when you get to the Cotswold farm, you discover that James has set up a sort of cheese republic – a cheese culture all of its own. (“I know it’s from the book of rock clichés – buying a farm,” James admits later.) I am directed to a deserted farmyard. What now? I open the door nearest me and there, sitting at her desk, is Juliet Harbutt, one of the two grandes fromages of the British artisan cheese movement (the other is Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy). She explains that she runs her cheese consultancy from here and walks me to another outhouse where she thinks James is. On the way we pass a third cheese business syphoning milk into the dairy. This is Cheese Central. I step into the suggested shed and there is the familiar face of the rock star, with his wife, Claire, and a minder from Asda’s PR agency. In the middle is a long table bearing a Heath Robinson arrangement of automatic toasting machines lashed together into a rudimentary production line. James is clearly geared up for the tasting. Bring it on.
James has a refreshingly no-brow approach to things. He has been a columnist for both The Spectator and The Sun. His artisan cheeses have won awards and publicity. “In Chipping Norton,” he says, “I don’t get asked whether Blur’s getting back together again, now it’s ‘what’s your next cheese?’” But here he is, launching a range of polythene-clad supermarket cheeses. One thing he is at pains to point out is that when Blur broke up in 2003 he needed to find another way of earning a living. It occurs to me this has its advantages over the music business. You can’t illegally download a cheese.
James has expended enormous efforts debating the origins of specialist cheeses – the terroir, the type of milk, the culture and so on. But he feels we have neglected the end use. Is it for after-dinner, for a sarnie, a baked potato or a rarebit? The new range sets out to satisfy all those requirements. James has five children and the various cheeses with their added flavours are based on the family snacks which they hoover up – including tomato ketchup and salad cream. Do I like the sound of that? Well, I’m a little wary but I’ll taste anything once.
They apparently pitched their family cheese fantasies at a number of supermarkets and Asda was the most enthusiastic. They’re being launched on August 22 under the brand, “Alex James Presents”. Well, Loyd Grossman has his pasta sauces and Paul Newman had his salad dressing, so why not? Time to crank up the eccentric equipment in the barn and taste the stuff.
A slice of cheese on toast pops out of one end. This is “Cheddar Tomato Ketchup”, ready-prepared in a bread-shaped slice, with a curved top like a cottage loaf. It is as luxurious as all melted cheese but I can’t really taste the ketchup. When I try a wedge of it raw (it also comes as a traditional slab) I can then pick up the sweet/sour ketchup flavour. There’s a similar salad cream product which I don’t quite get the point of. The raw version has a mild vinegary tang but I guess if you like salad cream on your cheesy spud you’d want the benefit of the emulsion rather than a distant echo of the flavour.
The “Cheddar Spring Onion” blend will go down well north of Crewe – cheese sandwiches in Lancashire and Yorkshire invariably have raw onion in them which can lead to fairly ripe social encounters. The “Cheddar Sweet Chilli” has a flavour and texture redolent of that 1960s tea-time favourite, Sandwich Spread. But for chilli lovers it has a residual heat that lingers in the mouth like a bit of oral central heating. There’s a “Cheddar Mozzarella”, which will make a good pizza topping, and also a product called “Cheddar Spudsworth”. These cubes, of three different cheeses, come in a plastic bag you can microwave for 40 seconds resulting in a molten lava that is then poured straight on to a baked potato. It’s got a very indulgent mouth-feel and melts quickly but I wasn’t sure the “carefully selected” cheeses made much difference to the fairly standard taste.
Now we come to the best two ideas in the range. “Alex’s Best-Ever Mature Cheddar” is a good cheese with plenty of bite. It’s not as mustily aggressive as, say, a Keen’s or a Montgomery’s cheddar but a very satisfying nibble nonetheless. I should report that Socks, the James’s whippet, got among the discarded wrappers at one point and the mature cheddar was clearly his favourite. But what stood out, in this parade of idiosyncratic combinations, is the “Cheddar Tikka Masala”. This is a very grown-up taste, with the cumin coming through particularly strongly. Cheese with cumin seeds is, of course, a Dutch standard and it always works well.
At the end of the tasting I’m given a safe passage out of this cheese republic and sent on my way with James’s latest artisan effort – a sheep’s milk cheese. I try it at the weekend and it’s superb. No need to go to Sardinia or Tuscany for pecorino any more – just drop in to Chipping Norton. But don’t forget your passport.
‘Alex James Presents ‘is launched on August 22
£2 a packet; www.asda.com