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.
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