Alex James – why is everyone so up in arms?

The current storm in a teacup that has hit the cheese world this week has definitely been the launch of Alex James (ex bassist of Blur who is now lending his name and media profile to launching different cheeses just in case anyone doesn’t realise) new range of cheeses in Asda which seem to include cheese slices flavoured with Tomato Ketchup, Salad Cream and Chicken Tikka as well as a bag of cheese bits you can put in the microwave before pouring the resulting melted goo over baked potatoes.  I should point out before continuing, I have not tasted any of this range and to be honest I’m not likely to be trying the Chicken Tikka unless by accident.However, if Alex James wanted to stir things up a bit and get a load of media attention (which he undoubtedly did) he has certainly succeeded.  Opinions range from bemusement on the part of his former collaborator Juliet Harbutt who was quoted in The Independent as saying: ‘There’s so much potential for fabulous cheeses that I was surprised Alex decided to go down this route’  to ‘Alex James Must Die’, the latter a joke on Facebook.  Martin Gott himself has entered the fray too having tweeted the opinion that ‘Alex James is to the cheese industry what Jedward is to the music industry’ and received a storm of response exhorting him to try before criticising.

Apparently James wants to make cheese accessible to everyone, so along with the artisanally made cheeses he has lent his name to, he also wanted to hit that part of the market that would never go into a deli, because it’s a snobby shop, and would shy away from a cheese matured in leaves and washed with cider brandy and even more so if made from goats milk (Little Wallop, the first cheese he put his name to).  If that’s his mission then he’s certainly got people’s attention and brought cheese into the news so good luck to him.

That he has diverted from the artisanal side of the cheese industry to go the industrial and flavoured route is no huge surprise to me.  Although when interviewed he usually falls short of out and out admitting this, Alex James is not a cheesemaker.  He is an enthusiast who in collaboration with independent consultants and cheesemakers themselves develops cheeses which are a little on the gimmicky end of the artisanal spectrum and now are on the rather gimmicky end of the industrial spectrum too.  For all that, the artisanal ones do taste good, if not quite demonstrating the complexity and ‘x factor’ that Randolph Hodgson and Bronwen Percival of my former employers Neal’s Yard Dairy looked for in sourcing a cheese.  The point is though, if you want your cheese to hit the headlines purely because of its quality, you don’t name it Little Wallop or Blue Monday.  Little Wallop may be an actual place name, as Stinking Bishop is an actual variety of perry pear, but in both cases the people behind the cheese have chosen the name because it’s eye catching and comment worthy.  It’s an easy sale because the sign bearing its name will stand out in a deli counter.  Montgomery’s Cheddar or Kirkham’s Lancashire don’t need a quirky name to get talked about, they simply taste good and attract sales for that reason alone.

This creation of image rather than relying solely on quality is where Martin’s Jedward analogy comes in and particularly applies to the new range where image is more dramatically courted over product quality.  Jedward are image over substance, but enjoyable in a bubblegum, music-lite sort of way.  There are certainly bubblegum pop acts out there that are a hell of a lot worse.  There is a place for them in their industry and they do what they do well.

The same can be said of the current range ‘Alex James presents’.  The ‘Alex’s Best-Ever Mature Cheddar’ from the range is made by Barbours who are a six generation farmhouse block cheddar maker and they make good block cheese and waxed rounds.  They also, crucially, have kept alive the traditional pint starter cultures that artisanal Somerset cheddar makers like Keens, Montgomerys and Westcombe rely on.  ‘Best Ever’ it may not be, when put next to something produced by the three aforementioned, but Alex James could have collaborated with a much more industrial dairy and one making cheese of a much lower quality.  As for the flavoured cheeses, it’s all in the balance and if Alex James range has succeeded in adding flavour into a base of well made if not particularly characterful or complex cheese (as might be suggested by the Financial Times tasting) then, of their ilk, again they could be worse.

Just as music purists don’t really rate the oeuvre of Jedward, the cheese purists are not going to get behind a chicken tikka cheese slice or even the less controversial but also less newsworthy elements from his range like cheddar with spring onions, but they have their place.  The Jedward comparison is not overtly a criticism, although to be fair it’s not a ringing endorsement either.

I am not the target consumer for this new range and nor really are most people I know; it’s cheese for those who normally don’t like cheese.  I also have to admit that to be honest the idea that someone out there needs a bag of cheese bits to microwave rather than being able to make up a cheese sauce for their baked potato or indeed just being prepared to grate or crumble up some cheese does make me a little depressed as to the standards of cooking ability in some homes in this country.  But, as Jedward to music or a Starbucks Caramel Frappucino to real coffee, if it gets someone who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in cheese to eat cheese and then leads them to branch out, try more complex flavours and even perhaps venture into a deli or Neal’s Yard Dairy sometime, then it’s the first step on a journey to discovering a whole world of great cheese.  In my youth, I had a fondness for industrial and bright green sage derby bought in the Marple branch of the co-op and look where that’s lead me in the end!

Even if the journey stops in Asda with the salad cream cheese slice, it’s still helping to keep part of our dairy industry alive by providing a customer for the dairy that makes the cheese which, in turn, means that the dairy farmers who supply them won’t be joining the numbers selling off their land and barns to commuters looking for a house in the country, giving up the farm and taking up bed and breakfast instead.

So at the end of the day, he may not be using his media profile to shine a light on the side of cheese making that inspires and excites me and yes, to me, given my tastes and indeed life choices, that does seem a wasted opportunity but it will play its part to support our dairy industry.

Alex James knows good cheese, I’ve sold him cheese in Neal’s Yard Dairy back in his Blur days.  I’ve seen him visit their maturing arches, looking as awe-struck and wide-eyed as any of his fans would given a backstage pass at a Blur concert, as he saw what happened behind the scenes one of one of his favourite cheese shops.  And he’s not only at peace with his decision to venture into the world of flavoured cheese and a range explicitly designed for the supermarket customer, it’s a valid part of his mission to get people talking about cheese.

And talk they are, myself included.  Just as he planned.

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