This morning, at the regular fortnightly meeting of CreativeCoffee Club at Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre, I get to bend the ear of Richard Smith, Phoenix’s Catering Manager, about a matter that has weighed heavily on my mind for several months now: jelly babies.
Back when Phoenix Square opened, it sourced its chewy sweets (such as jelly babies, liquorice allsorts and wine gums) from Taveners, who don't use any animal derivatives in their products. Taveners use pectin as their gelling agent, rather than gelatine. This is welcome for people from a variety of faith communities and traditions: Hindus would want to avoid beef gelatine; Jews and Muslims, pork gelatine; Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs would want to avoid either of these. It’s also good news for Harry and me, as vegetarians. Add vegans into that mix and that means quite a lot of people would choose foods with pectin in them.
Some folk might check out the ingredients of a packet of sweets as an afterthought and only discover that they've eaten something containing animal products (perhaps one that goes against their religious dietary regime) after the event. They might only check out the ingredients after they’ve been enjoying something for a long time. I know that I only thought to do this after years of committing to not eating meat or products containing anything derived from animals. And I love my jelly babies and liquorice allsorts (though I'm not that fussed about wine gums – sorry Alastair). Just as many, if not more, probably wouldn’t think to do that at all. I don't know how many people would be aware they're breaking any of their religious, moral or ethical rules by sharing a bag of jelly babies. It’s a bit of a test if you find out halfway through eating them, as I know from my own experience!
It wasn’t long before the Taveners bags disappeared at Phoenix Square to be replaced by the same sweets sourced from Bassets. Now, most people would see Bassetts as the real deal when it comes to these traditional sweets (or "retro" sweets as they're often called these days) and just about every other brand as being second-best (at best). To some extent this is because of Bertie Bassett, the character made out of liquorice allsorts, who has been a popular and successful marketing tool for many years. When I was younger, Bassets had a TV advert that featured Bertie swaggering down the street, followed by a gang of kids, singing "Good old Bertie Bassett, He's Britain's greatest asset!" I also remember coveting a badge that supported another Bassetts ad campaign, “One too many and you might turn Bertie”
Arguably the best advert for jelly babies, though, was Tom Baker’s Doctor, who would pull a bag out of his frock coat at inappropriate moments of peril, or when encountering a member of a new alien species. The fourth Doctor wasn’t carting Bassetts jelly babies around the galaxy in the Tardis (unless he was decanting them from their branded packaging into a battered paper bag – although that would be in keeping with the BBC’s anti-commercial policy in those days) but it can’t have done any harm to Bassetts sales and reputation, as the market leader.
Mind you, someone on the production team at Doctor Who may not have wholly bought into the product placement ethic at the BBC. Witness the Kandyman, from the Sylvester MCoy (seventh Doctor) 1988 story, The Happiness Patrol. The Kandyman was an evil robotic sort of Bertie Bassett, who comes to a sticky end (did you see what I did there?)
It's easy enough to find Halal approved sweets and vegetarian sweets, just as it is to find sweets which are nut-free or sugar-free. Nut-free would be a more pressing priority of course, as fewer (if any) people are likely to go into anaphylactic shock if they ingest gelatine. As someone with a strong interest in equality and diversity, I’d like that kind of choice for everyone, wherever such sweets are sold. But of course, in the end, this is a commercial decision by the retailer and I (as well as everyone else with a view) should respect that.
Oddly enough, when it comes to jelly beans, at the lowest end of the market (Tesco’s jelly beans, part of their own brand sweets, three bags for £1) and the high end of the market (Jelly Belly Beans – delicious but dear, though they are my favourite sweets) are made with pectin.
Any food containing pork gelatine, other derivatives from pigs or similarly prohibited ingredients would be Haram ("forbidden") to Muslims. There’s a intermediate state in Islamic jurisprudence, which is neither Halal nor Haram: Mushbooh means "doubtful" or suspected". Muslims are advised to avoid anything that falls into this category. Other religious communities have analogous forms of guidance.
After I've cornered Richard and bent his ear for several minutes, he tells me he agrees with me, that arrangements for sourcing these sweets was rather hit and miss at the beginning – and that they have not been stocking any sweets of this sort at all for a year or more now. I hadn't really noticed that, since I'd given up buying them once they'd switched to Bassetts. They weren’t selling well enough to keep stocking them apparently. But Richard says he’s willing to give them another try in the not-too-distant future. I’d better buy some then!
If anyone asks what I’ve achieved in five years in this post, I can pint to the restoration of vegetarian-friendly chewy sweets at Phoenix Square … sometime in the future. On a serious note though, this is just one more reason why members of the faith and cultural communities don't feel welcome in the kind of public spaces that many of the rest of us inhabit. They don't feel at ease with the food and drink on offer. I know I'm making a generalisation here - and I know that there are some groups who won't go anywhere at all where alcohol is sold (which you can't really do anything about in somewhere like Phoenix Square). What I'm harping on about here is a small concession, but can mean a lot to those who care enough to take note of such things.
And, by the way, there's no actual wine in wine gums, so there's no need to go down that road, faithful reader.