Blur bassist Alex James raised a few eyebrows when he announced he was swapping rock n’ roll for fresh country air and a career as a cheesemaker.
More than a decade on, the father-of-five is a big cheese in the industry, with an award-winning range of artisan cheeses and an annual food and music festival, the Big Feastival, at his Cotswolds farm.
The self-confessed “obsessive cheese maniac” tells us about guilty cheese pleasures, sharing his love of food with his kids, and why reindeer cheese is top of his wish list.
What’s your all-time favourite cheese?
It depends what time of day it is. You'll use a different cheese for breakfast and at night, normally. But if I had to name one, I do think a really good Cheddar is the king of all cheeses. There's something about the way cheddar melts which makes it superior to all other cheeses. You just can't beat that smell. That's the smell of home sweet home. Cheddar's the big one.
Do you have any guilty cheese pleasures?
I don't mind a little spready cheese triangle with a packet of crisps. And I'm a fan of a Wotsit and a Quaver. I like cheesy flavoured things. I don't think you should be too snobby about it. If you're making a burger you can't beat one of those little individually wrapped nasty slices. It's absolutely perfect. And my kids love those stringy things.
Any cheeses you’ve yet to try?
I've still never managed to try reindeer milk cheese. That's the most expensive - it's very hard to milk reindeer apparently.
Are your kids cheese connoisseurs too?
Whenever I'm working on a new cheese, I just leave it in the fridge and if it's disappeared by the morning I know I'm onto a winner, and if no one's eaten it then i know I've got to go back to the drawing board. Of the five of them, one of them just doesn't like cheese at all. But the rest of them absolutely love it.
Is it true that eating cheese late at night can give you strange dreams?
Absolutely. I did a story in the paper a year or two back after research was conducted with a broad cross section of people giving them different cheeses every night before they went to bed.
I tried it. I ate cheese last thing at night, and the one that made me have the weirdest dreams was blue cheese. Apparently blue cheese contains a tryptophan, a mild stimulant similar to caffeine which gives your subconscious a little tickle while you're asleep. I had a spectacular dream which I'd love to share with you but I probably shouldn't. It wasn't a sexy one, but it was quite interesting!
What means more, awards for cheese or awards with Blur?
Cheese awards tend to be much boozier and much more fun than music industry awards these days. People go absolutely mental at cheese awards. The Wensleydale gang are always good value at cheese awards, they always get stuck in. Winning awards is absolutely brilliant but the main thing is, if you believe what you're doing is brilliant, that's what makes you want to get up in the morning.
What was the reaction from Blur and friends when you told them you were taking the leap from music to cheesemaking?
My band always knew how much I loved cheese, and actually all my friends too. I'm a complete obsessive cheese maniac. So I don’t think there was much sense of surprise amongst people that I knew.
People do think it’s a big shift, but monks sing in the morning and make cheese in the afternoon. They're both spiritually fulfilling! There are a lot of similarities really, but it is a big change. There just came a point in my life when I didn't want to be living out of a suitcase anymore. I think a lot of musicians do end up living on farms, because it's a chance to put down roots somewhere and be still and quiet.
When you were on tour with Blur did you have cheese on your rider?
We did have local cheese on the rider every day, wherever you go there's a different word for cheese and a different thing for cheese. As we toured the world I suddenly became aware of the variety and wonder of the whole spectrum of cheeses, that's really helped to inform my discovery and love of cheese. People used to throw it at me on stage.
Do you have to limit your cheese intake to stay in shape?
Bass players tend to be one shape and cheesemakers tend to be another, so yeah, it's normally back down to the gym when Blur get back together, to sort myself out.
You’ve teamed up with Nespresso to mark the launch of its new Vertuo system. Can coffee and cheese work together?
Do you know what, blue cheese works really well with a short coffee. When we moved out to the countryside I said to my wife [Claire], "I can't do the countryside without decent coffee". We ended up spending quite a lot of money on this huge professional coffee machine that had come out of a coffee shop somewhere, because that was kind of the only way you could drink restaurant quality coffee at home, but the Vertuo makes an incredibly good cup of espresso.
There's a slight bitterness to blue cheese; bitter is quite a tricky taste to master, but we do love it. Coffee's bitter too and there's a really good connection between them both.
The Nespresso Vertuo coffee brewing system is available online and at selected retailers.