Wednesday 21 August 2013

A Swan Supper on the Thames

A swan pie I made for the exhibition 'London Eats Out' held at the Museum of London in 2000.
I have just listened to a BBC radio news item about the remains of a mute swan discovered a few days ago on Baths Island in the Thames not far from Windsor Castle. The state of the bird indicated that it had been killed, skinned and then grilled on a disposable barbecue. Thames police have indicated that since swans are the property of the Crown, the case would be treated as one of theft. Mute swans also also have statutory protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and a Llandudno man was jailed for two months in 2006 for killing and eating a swan. Very few of us nowadays have had the dubious pleasure of dining on this regal bird, but I am pretty sure that the heartless hooligans who killed the Baths Island swan would not have enjoyed their illegal alfresco meal. In a newspaper photograph the charred left-overs of their supper appeared to belong to an adult specimen. Mature swans have little subcutaneous fat and their flesh is exceedingly dry, making them a tough and entirely unsuitable subject for barbecuing. It would have tasted awful. Serves them right I say. But we all know that swans were once eaten with relish by the wealthy at great feasts, one of the reasons why they were so valued by the Crown. But if they are such poor eating what was the fuss all about? Well swan once really was an esteemed dish, but it was not the adult birds that ended up in the pot (or on the grill for that matter). This is what Ross Murray, a compiler of household manuals for Victorian housewives told his readers in the 1870s,

'Roast Swan. This splendid dish, worthy of a prince's table, is only too locally known. It is, of course, only eligible for the table in its cygnet state.'

So it looks like they ate the babies - the ugly ducklings that is? Not exactly. Murray goes on to say, 

'The cygnets when all hatched are of a slaty grey, which grows lighter as they grow older. The cygnets of the wild swan are white. But it is of the grey cygnets we have to speak. They are hatched in June. If if is intended to eat them they must be taken from their parents and put into a separate swan pond, at the end of August or first week in September. After they have been "hopped or upped", as it is called, from their native place grass is thrown to them twice a day with their other food for a fortnight. They are fattened on barley: a coomb each cygnet suffices for the fattening. The corn is set in shallow tubs just under water. Cygnets can only be fattened before the white feathers appear; after that no feeding will do any good; as soon as a white feather shows they will cease fattening, no matter what food they have. They can consequently only be eaten in December, and they are a capital and magnificent Christmas dish. Their weight then will be from 25 lbs to 28 lbs.'*

So these teenage super-sizers were fattened by feeding each of them on a coomb of barley. A coomb was a dry measure consisting of four bushels! That was some fattening up process. They were slaughtered the moment their white adult plumage appeared, which pretty well coincided with Christmas. They were seven months old and pathologically obese. Murray goes on to tell us that swan was a popular local dish in Norfolk and explains how they were roasted in homes in that county on a spit in front of the fire as a Christmas dish. He explains that the finished swan was garnished with four little swans carved out of turnips and 'a paper frill, nicely cut, about the shoulders'. He even quotes a popular Norfolk poem on how to prepare the bird and provides a chromolithograph of the finished roast garnished with its miniature turnip swans and surrounded by all the other dishes of a high Victorian Christmas dinner. Both poem and illustration are reproduced below. 

So if ordinary Norfolk folk, other than the ones who resided at Sandringham, ate swan at Christmas were they breaking the law of the land like the heartless vandals who cruelly killed the Baths Island bird the other day? No. Because the swans they roasted on their spits were not necessarily the property of the monarch. All swans that were at liberty on open waters belonged to the Crown by prerogative right, but as long as the birds had their wings 'pinioned' and their bills marked, ownership could be granted to a landowner. Today the queen only claims her right to those birds on certain parts of the Thames that have not been marked by others. In addition to the monarch, there are not many other Thames swan owners, currently only two London livery companies - the Vintners and Dyers, who both have ancient rights to possess swans on the river. For centuries swans' bills were cut with identifying marks that indicated the identity of the 'swannery' to which they belonged. All over the country abbots, bishops and wealthy landowners raised young swans for their tables and all marked their bird's bills with unique distinguishing marks. These swan marks were granted by the Crown to the various owners. It was a similar process to that of being issued a Crown licence to have permission to develop a deer park on your estate. Between 1450 and 1600, there were about 630 swan marks recorded for different owners of swans on London waters alone. So the monarchy did not claim them all. The marks illustrated below were granted to various owners resident in Lincolnshire. Since these eccentric hieroglyphic barcodes were cut into the birds' bills, the practice was considered to be cruel to by Queen Alexandra and it was discontinued in the early twentieth century.

 Royal Society MS 106 pp 6-7.  A register of swan bill marks compiled by Elizabeth I's swan master. The various owners are identified to the left of the diagrams. Courtesy of the Royal Society.
A sixteenth century book of swan bill marks. Harley MS. 3405 ff. 18v-19. Courtesy of British Library
So swans were not only kept for looking pretty on your lake or moat, but had a definite gustatory purpose. As early as the thirteenth century they were an item of commerce and were being sold in markets as food. They were not cheap. In the reign of Edward III, they were sold at a price of four to five shillings, making them ten times more expensive than goose. In fact swans were eaten all over Europe and are frequently depicted in table still life paintings, usually sitting on top of magnificent pies. In 2000 I recreated a 1566 livery company feast in which swan pies featured for an exhibition at the Museum of London. I used a painting by David Teniers the Younger (reproduced below) as a model for the pies which had gilded pastry decorations, as well as taxidermy specimens of swans 'swimming' on their lids. 
A recreated 1566 livery company feast at the Museum of London
David Teniers the Younger, Kitchen Scene with Swan Pie. 1644 The Mauritshaus, The Hague.
Jan Breughel the Elder, An Allegory of Taste (detail). 1618. The Prado, Madrid
In England, of course swan featured on Christmas menus. Below is the bill of fare for a Christmas day feast published by the seventeenth century master cook Robert May. In the first course item 11 is 'A swan roast'. The second course is regaled with item 6 'A Swan Pye'.

From Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook. (London: 1660)
Nearly a hundred years after May published the bill of fare above, another Christmas dinner featuring a swan pie, this time as a centrepiece for the first course appeared in John Thacker's The Art of Cookery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1758). Thacker was the cook to the Dean and Chapter at Durham Cathedral where there had been a swannery since well before the Reformation. He gives us a recipe which indicates that the Dean's Christmas Swan Pie would have been ornamented in the style of those depicted in the paintings above.

Bill of fare and recipe from John Thacker, The Art of Cookery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1758)
By the nineteenth century, swan had gone out of fashion (other than in the wilds of Norfolk). However, the use of taxidermy swans to embellish fancy food items continued, as witness this bizarre trophy of woodcocks, snipe and other game birds illustrated by Theodore Garrett in the 1890s.

From Theodore Garrett, The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: 1890s)

Although barley-fattened roast swan and swan pie had vanished, swans made of butter, ice cream, aspic, nougat, chocolate and countless other confections graced the entremet courses of the Victorian high class dinner party. Mould manufacturers had a field day producing swans in copper, tin, pewter and wood for kitchen staff to make these decorative sweet substitutes.

Ice cream and sorbet swans were very popular on the high Victorian table
An ice cream swan did not require a licence from the crown 
One half of a butter print in the form of a swan
I found this cutting in a Victorian scrapbook. I do not know its original French source. It explains how the English performed a trick at the table by concealing a small piece of iron in a butter swan and then with a magnet hidden in a piece of bread, encouraged the swan to swim across a wet plate!
So with a magnet discreetly sealed in a piece of bread I had a go. It worked! 

*Ross Murray, The Modern Householder, A Manual of Domestic Economy. (London: nd. 1870s) pp. 338-9.

Visit the Queen's official webpage on swans and the custom of 'swan upping' on the Thames
This webpage has an excellent video narrated by David Barber, the Queen's Swan Marker


  1. I hope that wasn't a real swan in your pie? ;-)

    1. Hi Sue,

      The pie illustrated here was actually a prop which had to be displayed for a year, so it was a fake one. However, twice in my life I have sampled swan. On both occasions I was given birds that had suffered violent deaths, One had got itself tangled in some barbed wire and the other had swallowed some fishing tackle. The first was an adult and was not good to eat. I baked it in a raised pie hoping that the slow cooking process would tenderise the meat. It did to a certain extent, but it was rather stringy. The second was a five month old cygnet. Unlike the birds that were fattened for the table, this one was pretty lean. I roasted it on a spit according to Murray's directions. It was n't bad, but I would not describe it as 'worthy of a prince's table'. He was right, a lot of care went into raising the young birds for the table, which is no longer done in this country. I have never tasted a young swan that was raised in this way.

  2. Joop Witteveen, in Petits Propos Culinaires #24, wrote an article entitled "On Swans, Cranes and Herons". Part 1 deals with swans. He starts by examining the sources he used, then the types of swans that were probably eaten, and ends with the differences in swan preparation in countries such as France, England, Germany and the Netherlands. In England, cygnets were to be roasted "brown a long time before a slow fire."

    1. Thank you Elise. Yes. Joop's paper is very useful on the subject of these archaic avian delights.

  3. I've seen it all. Magnets to make food swim across the plate... What they thought up. Today, in the US, baby swans sell for $200.USD. I've never been able to eat my farm animals - too much of an animal lover. I have eaten my chicken's eggs though at first, I had to choke them down. The TUDORS showed Henry VIII eating a swan pie.

  4. Great post,

    Is it me or the swan looks like a perfect summary of the enclosure process? A privilege of the gentry until the Edwardian age when the collapse of land prices caused brought the system to an end.

  5. Ivan - I a recent discussion about swans as food. From hatch to fledgling they have a phenomenal growth rate and an excellent feed conversion rate, so from an economic point of view they are an perfect. The main difficulty with them is that they lay a limited number of eggs and are highly seasonal. Also they tend to eat aquatic vegetation, rather then graze, which is likely a major reason why we have domesticated geese, not swans.

  6. The paper "They Dined on Crane" by Umberto Albarella and Richard Thomas is a fascinating examination of the archaeological evidence for the consumption of wild birds in medieval England. In general, consumption of great numbers of wild birds was the norm, just as the written sources would have us believe, although the practice was largely confined to high-status sites, unsurprisingly. Notably, consumption of swan increased as the Middle Ages progressed.

    Tundra swans are legal game in a few parts of the United States for a short season, and swan hunting is popular among some people. They say the mature wild birds make a good roast, but I have not yet had a chance to test their claims. Feral mute swans are a pest in the US, and some states issue permits for eradicating them.

  7. All over the net--almost as an urban legend--is the claim that Queen Victoria's Christmas table in the 1840s included roast swan. I have no reason to doubt it, but I would like to see an authentic menu from that period, just to confirm and to see what else was served.

    The many authentic royal Christmas menus that are available online--all from later in the 19th century--have a remarkable sameness to them. I'm curious what those earlier menus really looked like.

    1. Michael,

      I have never seen a royal Christmas menu from the 1840s. I have a print of the Windsor Castle game larder in 1857 at Christmas which shows a lot of birds hanging up, including a peacock, but not a swan as far as I can see. You can see this image on this posting -

      In the later royal Christmas menus from Osborne House, the sideboard is alway dressed with a raised (Christmas) pie, a collared brawn, a boar's head, a woodcock pie (a gift from Ireland) and a baron of beef. Because there was not a large roasting range at Osborne House, which is on the Isle of Wight, the baron (always served as a cold cut) was roasted at Windsor and sent by train and yacht to Osborne. There is a marvellous photograph album at Osborne which has an image of the 1888 Christmas sideboard with all these dishes displayed on it.

  8. Hi,

    I realise that this might not be of much use as this is an old post but I found the source for the French cutting. It comes from 'La cuisinere de la campagne et de la ville'. The two other 'surprises' mentioned at the end of the cutting are also worth reading, although I wouldn't attempt the first one. A digital copy is available on the website from the Bibliothèque National de France:ère%20de%20la%20campagne%20et%20de%20la%20ville.langEN

    1. Dear Caroline,

      Nice detective work! Thank you for this. The cutting has always been a mystery. 'La cuisinere de la campagne et de la ville' looks like an interesting book. best regards


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