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Forget the sex and drugs. These days ex-Blur bassist Alex James is happier with a medium-rare steak and a nice piece of cheese. Brian Viner joins him for lunch in the country
Alex James has crammed a lot of living into his 39 years, which makes it all the more remarkable that his existence as a pop star, journalist, farmer and cheese-maker includes his so-called ‘lost’ years, when he blew a seven-figure sum on drink and drugs. Not only did Blur’s bass guitarist survive to tell the tale, he survived to make Little Wallop, a goats’ cheese wrapped in vine leaves.
It is not because Little Wallop features prominently on the cheeseboard that James has chosen the Kingham Plough, in Kingham, Oxfordshire, as the venue for our lunch. He lives on a 200-acre farm about a mile away, and says that since Emily Watkins, a former sous chef to Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, opened the Kingham Plough last year he rarely eats anywhere else.
‘I like The Wolseley when I’m in London, but I’m out here most of the time, and Emily has that attention to detail that’s a hallmark of genius, and madness,’ says James. ‘She’s incredibly diligent about local recipes, and sources most of her ingredients from within a five-mile radius. A lot of restaurants pay lip service to the business of sourcing. I was at Paddington station yesterday, and there was a pie stall saying “local produce”.’
While we’re chuckling at the idea of beef cattle on Praed Street, our starters arrive. James has ordered mushrooms and snails on toast, followed by a fillet steak, medium-rare, with Blumenthal-style triple-cooked chips. He is apologetic about his ‘cop-out’ choice of main course, from a menu that also offers wild rabbit Wellington. On the other hand, he knows that his steak will be sublime. ‘Emily has a temperature bath out there. She poaches it at 52 degrees for 25 minutes, and it’s perfectly medium-rare all the way through.’
He knows whereof he speaks, having spent a service or two toiling in the Kingham Plough’s kitchen, an experience he wrote about for The Observer. ‘I remember Joe Strummer once telling me that he saw The Pogues play and immediately wanted to join them. I felt the same way after I met Emily. I wanted to join in.’
Strummer joining The Pogues is one thing; Blur’s bass man at the stove of a Cotswolds pub is a more striking change of direction. And he concedes that ‘it’s a very hard thing to give up, being in a band, but there’s a point at which all that shagging and boozing becomes a bit inelegant’. Moreover, there are plenty of precedents of musicians getting the food bug, he believes. ‘When Rossini finished writing the William Tell overture he stopped doing music and became a gourmand.’
James’s own enthusiasm for gastronomy was kindled in France, on school exchanges. ‘And then I did French at university, which is where I met Graham [Coxon, the Blur guitarist].’ James was a vegetarian by then – ‘my passive attempt at being benevolent’ – and even at the height of Blur’s success, amid all the drink and drugs, he cheerfully proclaimed his devotion to cheese. ‘There’d be an item in Smash Hits saying Damon [Albarn] likes Buddha, Graham likes skateboards, Alex likes cheese. So on stage in Japan, where they have a highly developed fan culture, I’d have cheese thrown at me. And it comes in tins out there.’ I ask whether he looked forward to particular tours on account of the good local cheeses? ‘Yeah. Denmark – they have some hardcore stinky cheeses.’
The third phase of his life, following a suburban middle-class youth in Bournemouth and the blurred Blur period, began when he met Claire Neate, a video producer. ‘I stopped drinking for a year and shed a whole layer of boozy friends. I kept my intimate friends, but actually they’re the ones who find it hardest when you fall in love, and I totally swooned for Claire. We were married and pregnant within a year of meeting, and we bought the farm, by fax, on our honeymoon. My friends thought I was mad, but marrying Claire and buying the farm were the cleverest things I ever did.’
Within a month of their arrival, Kingham was voted ‘Britain’s best village’ in Country Life magazine. Also, the nearby Daylesford farm shop, bankrolled by the Bamford family (of JCB fame and fortune), was turning the area into ‘a bit of a foodie mecca’. James was in heaven. For him, heaven has a particular aroma, so when the opportunity arose to make his own cheese, he grabbed it.
He teamed up with Juliet Harbutt, a neighbour and one of Britain’s leading authorities on cheese, to make Little Wallop. They are currently developing other cheeses and James has bought his first cow, a pregnant Gloucester by the name of Trinity, who cost £1,000. ‘I was making a cheese soufflé last week,’ he says, ‘and I wondered how much it actually cost. First buy a farm, then completely rebuild the farmhouse. Restore drains, hedges, ditches, fences. Next, make your cheese.’ An explosive laugh. ‘It was an expensive soufflé.’
As a rule, though, he thinks that good food is worth the hefty expenditure, and cites an organic free-range chicken from Daylesford that cost him £19. ‘Britain is only just overcoming that wartime mentality of making food cheap,’ he says. ‘I actually think anyone can afford to eat well. On the whole, the less money you have, the more time you have, so you can grow your own food. And the people who need to buy a chicken for two quid are overweight anyway. In this part of the world, you can tell how affluent people are by how thin they are.’
He is suspicious, he adds, of the notion that food miles are some kind of evil. ‘The chef Peter Gordon told me that the farming system in New Zealand is incredibly efficient, and it is actually good for the environment for us to support it. As for organic produce, I meet a lot of non-organic dairy farmers and I don’t see how they could improve what they’re doing. I do think organic farming is the right thing to do, but it’s also a bandwagon for charlatans, a way of charging more.’
He takes a swig of dandelion & burdock – he drinks little alcohol except Champagne these days, ‘and I don’t guzzle that any more’ – and wears the expression of a proud father as the waitress arrives at our table to deliver the cheeseboard, on which Little Wallop looms large. ‘It doesn’t get any better than great food and good company,’ he says. ‘When I started mixing with really wealthy people, I thought, “God, they can do anything they want but they just want to go out for dinner.” Now, I understand.’
Kingham, Oxfordshire, 01608 658327
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2008