Jelly: from Ringo Starr to Martin Clunes – just desserts?
Jelly is a simple dessert. Honest, humble, democratic. Beloved of princes and paupers, It-Girls and girls who work in IT (see what I did there?). If ever a dessert could be called “just”, it is jelly. So does that mean that if you hear someone say that a person “got his just desserts” that he got lots of lovely jellies? No it does not. It likely means the opposite. Well, maybe not the exact opposite – which would be having lots of lovely jellies taken away from him – but certainly it’s unlikely to be anything as pleasant as being given lots of sweet, wobbly treats.
If ever you’ve heard the expression “he got his just desserts” and wondered where the saying came from – but were too lazy to just look it up on Google – then read on. For a start with “desserts” is the wrong spelling. It should actually be “he got his just deserts”. Why would somebody get receive some arid, usually hot, areas of land, you are asking. Again, you are barking up the wrong tree. The word “deserts” in this context is the plural of “desert”, an archaic word meaning “that which one deserves”, so to get ones just deserts means to get what you rightly deserve. It is usually used in the context of somebody who has done something bad and is effectively punished for it – although technically it would not be incorrect to use it referring to somebody who has done something good and so is rewarded for it.
A jelly good show
Maybe it’s because the word “desert” meaning “that which one deserves” has dropped out of usage that so many people misspell it as “desserts” in the common saying. Whatever the reason, if you put “just desserts” into Google then it returns roughly twice as many results as the correct spelling. Of course, not all of these will be mistakes, as some people spell it deliberately wrong for punning purposes, such as when naming sections of the menu in certain chain restaurants.
These are usually the type of restaurants that wouldn’t sell anything as simple and delightful as a wobbly jelly. They might try to appeal to students and hipsters however by selling a vodka jelly cake. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with vodka jelly cake or indeed with the principle of vodka jelly recipes in general. Making alcohol fun to consume is a laudable aim. Well, unless you disapprove of drinking alcohol of course, but if you don’t then you might just as well make it fun to consume as make it miserable to consume.
They are also the types of restaurants that tend to over-describe everything. It is not enough to say that a jelly-filled choux pastry éclair comes topped with chocolate sauce. No, it must be “enrobed in chocolate sauce” or “smothered in chocolate sauce”. They wrongly believe that such needlessly overblown language will make them sound impressive, or perhaps that if they talk about the food un such gushing terms then it will somehow make the food taste better. On the former point, they are mistaken, for it does the opposite of making them sound impressive.
On the latter point though, they may – possibly – be on to something. For we know that our sense of taste is affected by all manner of subtle factors. The colour and shape of the plates, for instance, can make things taste sweeter or change the point at which we begin to feel full. Similar experiments have been done with playing different kinds of background music and asking people to describe their meal. Sure enough, varying the background sounds can indeed lead to people describing exactly the same meal in different ways. And these are normal, sober people, not beat box drifters tanked up on vodka jelly shots and fine cognac.
And as well as the plates, cutlery, music and so on, one of the things that affects taste is expectation. So by planting words like “smothered” and “enrobed” in the diner’s mind, it is possible that they may expect a richer and more satisfying taste experience, and so may in fact feel they have experienced that simply because they were expecting it.
However, even if there is some small truth to this and it does marginally improve one aspect of the dining experience, the fact that the menu looks so pathetic and class-less will lower many people’s overall opinion of the establishment and of the dining experience – including the taste. Put simply, the negatives outweigh the positives when employing such techniques, and restaurateurs who do so may well find they get their just deserts, in terms of lower profits.
We saw in a previous article how jelly was one of the items rationed during the war. Churchill was initially opposed to this, as he felt jelly was central to the morale of the country, but he was eventually persuaded that rationing would prevent people from stockpiling jelly and driving the black market jelly price up should it ever run out. He himself was particularly fond of jelly babies (which were also rationed). In fact, with his fondness for alcohol – he was reportedly drunk throughout much of the war – he would no doubt have enjoyed vodka jelly babies, had they been invented then. He’d have even more preferred them made with brandy, whisky or champagne, which were his preferred tipples.
When rationing ended in 1954, there were parties up and down the land, at which jelly often played a central role, alongside butter, eggs and nylons.
Churchill is not the only famous figure from history who loved jelly. Ringo Starr was (and probably still is) mad for lime-flavoured jelly. When the Beatles were exploring India and getting all spiritual, Ringo was said to be quite disgruntled with the whole experience, not least because he was missing his lime jelly. The other Beatles tried to snap him our of it, but he was adamant that he wanted his lime jelly.
John, who was probably the most fond of Ringo, even offered to try and make him some lime jelly by boiling up some cow bones and mixing them with some lime pickle, which is widely available in India. This ran into all sorts of problems though. Firstly, cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, so John’s proposal that they boil up a load of cow bones so as to make gelatine and then jelly did not go down well.
Secondly, George was getting into vegetarianism, so wasn’t too keen on the idea. Paul had not yet married Linda and gone veggie, but he was even then dabbling with the idea of “meat free Mondays”.
Then there was the rather more practical problem that in the heat of the Indian sun, it was difficult to get jelly to set properly. It usually had to be made at night, which didn’t always fit in with the Beatles’ schedule.
In the end, the whole thing was just too much hassle, and Ringo left early to get his lime jelly, describing the experience of his first mouthful of the green, wobbly treat as “fab”.
The rest of the Beatles stayed for longer, writing some of their most beautiful songs while out there, many of which would go on to comprise the core of the White Album – considered by most critics to be among their finest work.
Men behaving jellily
It’s not just Ringo Starr from the world of entertainment who loves jelly. Martin Clunes is a huge fan too. His tastes are rather more ‘Observer Food Monthly’ than Ringo’s though! Whereas the erstwhile Beatle favours lime jelly, Clunes is known to opt for cappuccino flavour jelly, and other such modern twists – and it’s said that he has a vodka jelly recipe to die for. He claims it’s all about getting the vodka jelly ratio of jelly to vodka correct. What is that perfect ratio then, Martin? He’s not telling! “That’s just between me and my dawgs,” he says, when asked.
The dawgs – or dogs – he’s referring to are his beloved Labradors. He likes nothing more than taking them for long country walks and then, on his return, firing up the aga, pulling on a nice chunky knit cardigan (the classy kind, not the dad kind) and settling down with some cappuccino jelly or even, if feeling fruity, a few vodka jelly shots.
We’ll drink to that, Martin. Cheers!