Cheese Making, Cotswolds
Katie Jarvis explains why cheese-making is the new rock'n'roll. Photography by Mike Charity.
IT'S not every day a rock star moves next door. But when one does, the obvious thing to do is to... make cheese together, of course.
Well, that's if you happen to be Juliet Harbutt and Alex James.
Juliet is the doyenne of the cheese world: a 'cheese' writer, cheese supporter - and the founder of the prestigious annual British Cheese Awards. While Alex is the multi-talented columnist and musician who first found fame as the bass player in Blur.
Strange combination it might be, but like many inspired recipes, it works - for they've joined forces to produce the thumpingly-good Little Wallop. It's fresh goats' cheese, washed in local cider brandy and wrapped in vine leaves. And despite being the new cheese on the block, it bravely entered last autumn's British Cheese Awards - and won a silver medal.
It was a particularly big move for Juliet, an acknowledged expert in the subject, who's never ventured into the cheese-making process before now.
"It was quite a daunting thing to do because I knew we had to get it right," she admits. "All eyes would be on us. But since 1984, when my obsession with cheese began, I have wanted to create my own. I've had recipes in my head but never found the right time or person to make the cheese - until last year, when I met my neighbour, Alex James."
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Alex is famous as Miss Muffet for his love of curds and whey. Since he swapped a balcony in Covent Garden for a farm in Kingham three years ago, he's settled to a life of rural bliss with wife Claire and their three children. Ever since then, he's extolled the virtues of cheese as "the new rock and roll" in his various national newspaper columns.
"My love of cheese really goes back to my dad," Alex says. "He was a willing explorer of the deep end of the cheese board, especially on holidays to France."
He's made several tentative forays into cheese-making himself, but none proved successful until he picked up the phone to Juliet last April and suggested they curdle together.
In a stroke of genius, they persuaded champion cheese-maker Marion Conisbee-Smith to help them develop a cheese. She worked in her kitchen at home to come up with a winner: "Within a few weeks, we tasted the first batch, which was wrapped in chestnut leaves," Juliet says. "Apart from having to use vine leaves instead, it was even better than we had envisaged."
With only five weeks to the British Cheese Awards - which they desperately wanted to enter - they engaged Peter Humphries (of Somerset's White Lake Cheese-fame) to make it for them. "His first batch was not as silky as the original, because he used bigger moulds and poured rather than ladled the curd into the moulds, but it was still perfection," Juliet enthuses.
"Next dilemma: what to call it? Living in the Cotswolds, we were spoilt for choice of unusual and wacky names, but as the cheese delivers a little punch when ripe, we settled on Little Wallop - it made us laugh and instantly we knew it was right."
Little Wallop's subsequent success in the British Cheese Awards marks a new phase for Juliet who's gone from success to success since her move to the UK from her native New Zealand. When she founded the awards in 1994, 97 producers entered a total of 296 cheeses. In 2007, there were 868 British cheeses competing - but for the first time, one of them was her own.
For Alex, too, it's been a transition. Although his love of cheese dates back to childhood, he's had more experience in catching than in making it. During a tour of Japan with Blur, he happened to tell fans he liked cheese. As a result, it was generously thrown at him on stage!
Though some might be puzzled, Alex thinks his move to cheese-maker is a perfectly natural transition. All those original Blur fans, he says, are now of the age when they're more likely to appreciate Roquefort than rock.
"I love it," he says, "and these days you just can't make good food that's too posh or too expensive. People are beginning to realise producers put their heart and soul into their products just like musicians do with their music.
"We've got plans to produce more. I want to do an Indie Cheese called Blue Monday: 'How does it feel to eat me like you do...?'"
It seems there could be plenty more hits to follow Little Wallop.
You can buy Little Wallop at the Cotswold Cheese Company in Moreton-in-Marsh; Cotswold Fine Food, Chipping Norton; Daylesford Organic at Daylesford; and The Kingham Plough in Kingham.