Monday, 22 August 2011

Cheese(s) of the Month - Alex James Presents


Cheese is at once our most revered and most abused foodstuff. At its best, as earthy Comté, pungent Epoisses or creamy Roquefort, it is one of the finest gourmet products on the planet, and available in such an unimaginably vast range of styles it's sometimes hard to believe they all come from the same raw ingredients - namely cow's, sheep's and goat's milk. Fine cheeses grace the tables of the world's best restaurants, take centre stage at the fanciest dinner parties, lift any picnic. Good cheese is one of the gastronomic wonders of the world, and my love for it is deep and profound - even the memory of the stunning Reblochon I had at Galvin @ Windows last week makes me go all wobbly.

Of course, there is the other end of the scale. I'm going to ignore things like Cheeze Strings and Dairylee Dunkers and Primula spread because they have as much in common with real cheese as a Pot Noodle does to a bowl of ramen and aren't worth getting annoyed about. And I'm not, at least I try not to be, a cheese snob - not every mouthful has to be some unpasteurised, artisan delicacy from deepest Limousin, and there's a place for affordable cheese just as much there is any other type of food (apart from meat perhaps, but that's another argument). I'm as guilty as anyone of indulging in a bit of mass-produced protein from time to time; sometimes there's nothing better than some budget Red Leicester melted onto toast, or even a cheeky spread of Philadelphia on a cracker as a late night snack. But I wonder how many people who pick up a pack of Cathedral City on their weekly shopping trip would realise just how far what they know as "Cheddar" is removed from the amazing Keen's or Montgomery's versions. In short, cheap mass-produced cheese may be normal, it may even be necessary, but it needs to be seen in context, and I can't think of any artisan cheese makers who would willingly muddy their brand by at once producing small-batch, hand crafted cheeses at the same time as supplying the largest supermarket chain in the country with mass-produced, processed junk.

Except one.


Alex James does, it should be said, put his name to some proper cheeses. Little Wallop is a washed-rind goat's cheese that has won a few awards in various competitions (including, er, one his business partner organises) and his Blue Monday is by all accounts very nice too. There are rumours that he doesn't really have much to do with the business of actually making them other than giving them his stamp of celebrity-gilded approval, but in a way this is unimportant - having a high-profile champion of artisan cheese is to everyone's benefit and raises awareness generally. What isn't to anyone's benefit is to use this privileged position to launch a range of pre-sliced, artificially-flavoured crap in a naked attempt to make a bit of easy cash. Ladies and Gentlemen, available at an ASDA near you now, I give you, Alex James Presents.

For whatever reason, I could only find the Cheddar Tikka Masala and Cheddar Sweet Chilli at ASDA Battersea. I went looking for them on the day they were supposed to have launched too, so I hope to God they hadn't already sold out of the Cheddar Ketchup and Cheddar Salad Cream versions otherwise my faith in the great British public may never recover. They were nestled on the shelf next to something called Alex James Cheddar Spudsworth, pre-sliced cheddar cubes that you're supposed to microwave until it turns into a bag of hot melted fondue and then pour onto a jacket potato. Because, you know, grating your own cheddar onto a potato can be such hard work.


I hate novelty flavoured cheese at the best of times - whoever first came up with the idea of putting chunks of dried apricot in lovely Mrs Kirkham's unpasteurised Lancashire needs a stern talking to - so I eyed the lumps of red chilli in the Cheddar Sweet Chilli with great suspicion. It tasted just as you might expect cheap cheddar mashed up with sweet chilli sauce might taste - not inedible, just confusing and pointless. Cheddar Tikka Masala was more actively wrong, the tikka flavouring sitting on top of instead of combining with the cheese, and making a mistake of the whole idea. The cheese itself had an unexciting but not wholly bad creaminess - I've certainly had worse cheddars - but the texture, thanks presumably to the technique required to mix the ill-advised additives in properly - was cloying and pasty. Perhaps either of them would have been better on toast. I'm sure I'll never know.

But my issue with Alex James Presents isn't that it tastes bad; I would never choose to buy Salad Cream Cheddar but I'm sure there are plenty of people who will, and at least there are no E-numbers or preservatives in it. My issue is that here is a wealthy man who had all the time and money in the world to produce something worthwhile, a man clearly passionate about good cheese who has already gained a reputation as a charming spokesperson for the industry, lending rock and roll glamour to an occasionally obscure process and bringing artisan cheese to the attention of many people who would otherwise have never have even considered it. And now, instead of using this power for good, he has sold out in the most dramatic way possible, by putting his name to a bastardised commodity boil-in-the-bag slop and range of novelty sandwich toppings in return for yet another hefty income stream. And the idea of that makes me more sick than anything involving pre-sliced triangles of ketchup-flavoured cheddar.

Cheddar Sweet Chilli 2/10
Cheddar Tikka Masala 1/10

36 comments:

normalinlondon said...

I used to have a forum thread entitled "Alex James (Media Whore) Watch" and me and my mates noted every instance we saw him on TV or in a magazine.

He wants to be loved by the masses!

Graphic Foodie said...

Shame. Like you said he could have put his name to his original ethos in cheese making. He now joins the Marco Pierre White ranks of sell out.

You do have to look into marketing and target audience though and, whilst this would not work in Waitrose, it does actually work in Asda (and that isn't intended to be snobby, I design packaging for products in various supermarkets - all have their main audience strongly in mind). Noone serious about cheese would ever contemplate buying this product. This is aimed at the Primula crowd.

Still, horrid design which makes the product look even worse. I would have gone with the concept and celebrated the additional ingredient - much like Glorious Foods do.

gourmetgorro said...

I frigging hate cheese with bits in it. Every Christmas I wonder what monstrosity is going to feature on the family cheese board. Wensleydale with cranberries and a terrible Cornish Cruncher with balsamic onions from M&S were notable recent horrors.

I had so much more respect for Alex James until now.

Bristol Bites said...

His blue cheese is fantastic, he's gained a massive amount of credibility for his cheese production...and now he does this. Not for me, I don't think. Shame on you Alex!

Ben said...

Thanks for taking one for the team, Chris.

(Also with you on fruit and other bits in cheese. All wrong.)

The Ample Cook said...

Agree with all of the above. He should hang his head in shame.

Andy K said...

Didn't you try the Spudsworth, if only to see whether cutting a cheese into chunks is worth (presumably) paying a premium for?

Pavel said...

Boo! Shame on all of you. You've got to put your kids through school somehow.

He's an ex musician who makes cheese, not bloody Satan.

At least he has only put his name to some cheese! So what if it's cheap or crap, at least it's fun at the end of the day.

It's not another piece of crap from the Gordon Ramsay house of shame or another useless and ineffective tool with the Joliver stamp of approval or even worse MPW and his bloody stocks...

Lizzie said...

Pavel - how is this any different to MPW's stocks?

Richard said...

I look forward to his next cheese that is impregnated with Branston in a money-spinning deal for him. No more half-used jars in the fridge with this cheese!

Ricard said...

Great post. I especially like "bastardised commodity boil-in-the-bag slop" - makes it sound utterly repulsive. Now anyone with any taste and self-respect won't buy his artisanal cheese either, so Alex James will lose any credibility he had with those of us whose lives are made meaningful by great cheese.

Anonymous said...

Is Robluchon an actual cheese? Is it made using Reblochon with a hint of Joel Robuchon?

Chris said...

Pavel: As Lizzie points out, this is no different at all from MPW's stock cubes. It's an abandoning of principles by a previous food hero, for a bit of extra cash.

Anon: HAHA sorry about that, I sometimes make up the spelling and say to myself I'll fix it later, then forget :)

Krista from theneonhub.com said...

I read the title thinking you were praising the cheeses and wondering if my preconceptions on first hearing about these horrible sounding things were all wrong... obviously not!
It is a strange thing for someone who marketed themselves as a cheese lover to then go and do. More strange than MPW as at least stock cubes are useful.

Saborosa said...

If you're bothered about meat production (I assume cos of animal welfare?) then you should also be bothered about milk production, cos it comes from animals, like. Just saying. (ooh can't believe i said just saying!)

Saborosa said...

If you're bothered about meat production (I assume cos of animal welfare?) then you should also be bothered about milk production, cos it comes from animals, like. Just saying. (ooh can't believe i said just saying!)

tori said...

Oh god. Just the thought of cheddar Tikka Masala is enough to give me night sweats. This is horrid beyond words.

Pavel said...

@Lizzie and Chris

It's different because it is still Cheese. Twenty years if you asked MPW to advertise shitty stock cubes he would have stabbed you in the neck as he was working in a kitchen as a chef...

If you ask Alex James in his role as a cheese producer if he wants to make some money selling some generic cheddar with added flavours I hardly see that as selling out.

Is he still making the artisan stuff? As far as I know the answer is yes!

If he'd stuffed it all in for the quick buck and never made his proper stuff again I'd be on your band wagon but as it stands I hardly see anything wrong with a man making some extra cash.

Who knows maybe one of the people trying his curried cheddar will go to a deli and see some of his other stuff and be converted... We can always hope!

evansde77 said...

Cheddar Tikka Masala has to be Britain's answer to Baconnaise. Sounds pretty grim.

Pavel said...

Also out of interest where do you stand on Marmite cheese?

Chris said...

Pavel: Whether he's still making good cheese isn't the point. He built up a reputation as an artisan cheese producer and is using that reputation to sell cheap shit at Asda. It's the abandoning of principles that's the issue here, and that's what I find objectionable. He would never have got any kind of decent reputation as a cheese maker if he'd started out by making Cheddar Tikka Masala. If he wants some extra cash fine, that's up to him, but it doesn't mean he's not a sellout in the MPW vein.

Also, I don't like Marmite Cheddar but the fact it's available doesn't bother me. If it was "Marco Pierre White's Marmite Cheddar", THAT would bother me.

Pavel said...

He built up a reputation for being in a band first and foremost. He is celebrity turned cheese maker and without being harsh I think it's fair to say he sold his soul a long time ago.

I've always thought it'd just be a matter of time before his face was on a cheese slice...

MPW is a chef who thinks he is a celebrity which tends to grind my gears a lot more.

:^)

Anonymous said...

What you have failed to understand (or maybe you have and you are jealous) is that he reaches a wider audience than you could ever hope too. He has not turned his back on artisan cheeses- it could be win win if he manages to get them stocked too in supermarkets (and consumed) by a wider group of people.
The most interesting part of this post was the photograph of the half empty cartons-His products are obviously selling well even early in the morning

whatsforteatonightdear said...

Little Wallop has been out of production for several months now, can't help but wonder if this wasn't linked to Alex's emerging plans.

But this is very cynical and very sad. Each to their own and good luck if that's how you want to make your money Mr James, but I hope we won't be seeing you on the grand jury at this year's world cheese awards (as in 2010) or anywhere else that's serious about food for that matter.

Goodbye and good luck with your new career in mass produced crap.

Dan said...

Horrible, Horrible, Horrible. Alex James's Blue Monday is a pretty decent artisan cheese.

I thought he'd really embraced the idea of being something of a gentleman cheesemaker type, (albeit a figurhead, he's not actually making the cheese of course), but then this move - grab the money and sell mass produced rubbish to the masses.
Like there isn't enough rubbery tasteless or gimicky cheese stocked in supermarkets already.

It's not a great example to struggling cheesemakers trying make excellent artisan produce.
Depressing.

Anonymous said...

you've all got far too much time on your hands.

Chris said...

Anon: Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess Mr James needs to make enough money to support his 5 kids.... 'cos, you know, he simply cannot conceive how anyone in the world would even consider having less children. Frankly, the fact that his cheeses are not great does not surprise me- and in fact, pleases me.

Gin and Crumpets said...

Salad Cream Cheddar. Only pure evil could conceive of such a thing.

JimmyShoe said...

Rumour has it that we're not actually talking about a particularly wealthy man here, hence the endless whoring in television, supermarkets, pe=rint media, festivals and so on. He bought a farm in the Cotswolds at the height of the property boom and has been paying for it since the market crashed around his ears. I have it on good authority that the Blur reunion was first and foremost a favour from James' bandmates to help bail him out with some quick capital. Rather depressing that he has to sell out his principles like this, but perhaps somewhat understandable given the circumstances.

eatmynels said...

Saddest thing is - its pobably not even in Alex's control what junk they ascribe to him name...

Mr Noodles said...

This is a low by any stretch of the imagination. He might think there's no other way, sat there in his country house but Alex James should know better.

Mr Creosote said...

Why is everyone only mentioning MPW's stock cubes. Knorr aren't even that bad. The real tragedy in that one was the advertising of Bernard Matthews turkey shite. Now THAT is selling out!

Tom Thumb said...

Alex James is a complete knob, and a media whore as Norma correctly asserted. Anything where publicity and his name are involved are fair game for this chump, hence these deliberately conceived nasty cheese combos.

Anyone who watched that appalling ITV show about celebrities 'helping' the homeless would have been able to see first hand what a self obsessed and witless fool this man is!

Becs@Lay the table said...

Your blog posts really make me laugh out loud. I am still trying to understand, along with the rest of your commenters why someone who clearly has a great reputation for cheese would put their name to something so incredibly dreadful...it's not like it was even an appealing idea in the first place.

Northern Snippet said...

Like it or not there's a much bigger Market for crappy foods than for artisan ones(you only have to look at the supermarket shelves to see that)even in  Waitrose a much bigger display is devoted to the 'mass produced' cheeses including Primula and cheese strings than for the quality ones.
These are tough economic times.
If the Cheddar Tikka Masala etc is subsiding and in fact allows The Sun food critic to continue to produce the artisan product(wealthy or not no one is going to continue to produce a product that fails to make a profit),then fair play to him,I'm not going to get my knickers in a twist over it,I'm just not going to buy it.