I always knew Alex James was the best one in Blur. As a hormone-fueled teenage girl, when all my friends were lusting after Damon, it was Alex that got my attention.
Standing there, strumming away on his bass, his face half obscured by that gorgeous mop of dark hair I thought he was the epitome of cool.
When he turned his hand to cheesemaking I adored him even more. What’s not to love about a cheesemaking rock star?
Now, Alex has joined forces with Jamie Oliver to host the Big Feastival, an extravaganza of music and food on his Oxfordshire farm – I’m convinced he might actually be the perfect man.
Needless to say I was almost beside myself with excitement when I was given the chance to actually speak to him to talk all about this year’s Feastival, which is taking place from August 31 to September 1.
When Alex come on to the phone he starts chatting away immediately.
“I’ve just come in from the strawberry patch,” he enthuses. “I’m going to get back out there after this. The strawberries taste like a completely different fruit when the sun shines. Happy days.”I can almost feel his excitement and enthusiasm rushing down the phone lines and feel a bit guilty for dragging him inside on such a sunny day.“Actually, before I can get back out there I have a man with a digger coming and I have to show him where to build the new road,” he says. He sounds a bit disappointed, like a child who has been told they have to do their homework before they can go out and play. It’s very charming and my heart melts a bit more. “But after that I can get back out there again.” His voice brightens.
The new road is part of the preparations for the Feastival.
It will be the second year Jamie and Alex have come together to hold the event and 15,000 people a day are expected to descend on the farm to see a top line-up of chefs and music acts, including Basement Jaxx, Rizzle Kicks, K T Tunstall, Mark Owen, The Feeling, Gennaro Contaldo, Tom Kitchin, Gizzi Erskine and of course, Jamie himself.“I can’t wait,” said Alex. “Last year was such a great weekend and I was completely bowled over by people’s reactions.”Alex and Jamie’s friendship began back in 2001 during a performance on Comic Relief.“We were the rhythm section for Uptown Girl with Baddiel and Skinner,” Alex laughs. “We hit it off and kept in touch. When I knew he was looking for somewhere for The Big Feastival I really wanted to get involved. I love Jamie. The more I get to know him the more I like him. He is really passionate and driven and brilliant. He is a major force for the good. I’d never really cooked with him, or seen him cook up close until the other day. It was just jaw dropping.”
It may seem like an unlikely pairing. While Jamie has built his career around his wholesome, cheeky chappy persona, Alex spent years living the rock star lifestyle, admitting spending more than a million pounds on cocaine and champagne.But since then Alex has swapped the drugs for dairy, and now makes award-winning cheese on the farm which he shares with his wife of 10 years, Claire, and their five children, Geronimo, Artemis, Galileo, Sable and Beatrix.
When Alex talks about his children there’s a real warmth in his voice and I get the feeling that his family really is the centre of his world. ”Cooking with the kids is my favourite thing.
“We have this book of ice cream recipes and we made something from it.
“Since then they’ve all been reading it and when they find something they want to make they turn down the corner of the page.
“I went to it the other day and found that all the pages had been turned down.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend the next five years.”
The Big Feastival is very much a family event, with plenty of activities for kids, including cookery workshops, games, an appearance by CBeebies’ Justin Fletcher, and cheeky hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks adding to the star-studded line-up.
“If the kids are happy, then the parents are happy,” says Alex. “The Big Feastival is very genteel. It’s a nice, natural sort of family event.
“My kids are incandescent with joy over Rizzle Kicks. But Claire’s more excited about Mark Owen.”
For Alex though, it’s the food that has the most appeal.
“The chef I’m really pleased we have managed to book is Ashley Palmer-Watts who heads up Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in London.
“He is really brilliant. I love Val Warner too.
“There’s going to be 200 local producers here too. The Cotswolds are a hotbed of production and farming.
“People who are discerning about music tend to be discerning about food as well so the two work really well together.
“When Blur first started doing festivals it was quite a new thing really and it was all the promoters could do to get us anything to eat at all.
“Now there’s a realisation that you can add an extra layer of sophistication and give people great food as well.”
Naturally, Alex’s cheese will also be making an appearance and he has developed a special Blue Monday Martini, featuring his Blue Monday cheese.
“It took lots of passionate research,” he says. I get the sense that tasting variations of the cocktail wasn’t much of a hardship for him.
“Because I am a food writer I read cookery books by yard. I’m always looking for recipes and this one works really well.
“You just stuff your olive with the blue cheese.”
At just 15,000 people a day, The Big Feastival is small in festival terms, but Alex and Jamie have had no trouble in attracting the big names.
“Because we are trying to build something cool people want to get involved,” said Alex. “They know they will have a nice time and they know they will get looked after.
“When Blur first started doing festival there were just two really. Now there are hundreds all over the world. I think if you want to compete then you have to really stand for something and it has to be something you really believe in.
“Michael Eavis has got that right with Glastonbury. It is the greatest show on earth and a wonderful thing.
“I don’t think The Big Feastival needs to be that big to be great though.
“I like it as a little boutiquey festival. Maybe we’ll make it a bit bigger next year, maybe 20,000. That’s quite a sweet number for a festival.
“The hardest things about organising it all are the mundane things, like car parking.
“Car parking takes up a huge amount of space. There’s nothing that’s insurmountable though and there’s a great team who are all working really hard.”
I ask Alex if he has any plans to take to the stage during the event.
“All Jamie’s mates are coming, and all my mates are coming,” he says. “I think there will be some impromptu things going on.
”There’s lots of stuff that is not on the posters but is just waiting to happen.
“I am really, properly excited. I can’t wait.
“Claire and I bought the farm on our honeymoon and I remember the day we got the keys.
“The place was almost derelict and it was utterly silent as we walked around. It was beautiful, but silent.
“I have spent the last 10 years heaving and sighing and transforming it into a cheese paradise. The idea of having it filled with 15,000 smiling faces is the realisation of a dream.”
Jamie Oliver and Alex James present The Big Feastival, a feel good festival of food and music for all the family on August 31 – September 1. For more info and tickets, visit www.thebigfeastival.com