Appears in
Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

swan a bird which exists in three species in Europe, the most important for present purposes being Cygnus olor, the mute swan, which is relatively easy to domesticate. Its size, coloration and graceful appearance when it is swimming are familiar. Less familiar is the idea of eating swans. However, evidence marshalled by Witteveen (1986–7) shows that the practice was widespread in Europe from the 8th century AD until the 17th (and in some places even the 18th) century.

The French naturalist Belon (1555) summarized the general opinion: ‘the swan is an exquisite bird and a French delicacy, eaten at public feasts and in the houses of lords.’ Young cygnets were apparently the best to eat, especially if fattened with oats, so as to lose their fishy taste. C. Anne Wilson (1973) remarks that they were the costliest of all fowl in the London poultry market of the 14th and 15th centuries. In common with the other ‘great birds’ (crane, heron, peacock) swans were usually roasted; often served with a well-spiced medieval sauce; and sometimes served in full display, with feathers arrayed and body gilded. Scully (1995), commenting on the fashion in the latter part of the 14th century for court cooks to present cooked animals in a lifelike pose, looking as though they had not been cooked, explains how the swan, for example, underwent an elaborate skinning procedure before being cooked, and would then be ‘re-dressed’ in its skin and feathers just before being served. This fashion included having the animals (e.g. a boar) breathe fire in front of the guests. ‘By soaking cotton in aqua ardens and igniting it at the right moment, the animal could continue for some time to do the impossible while it was paraded on a platter around the dining hall.’ Scully rightly comments that it was rather bizarre to apply this technique to a swan, but that this was done by Chiquart, the chief cook at the Savoy court in the early part of the 15th century (whose treatise ‘On Cookery’ has been edited and translated by Scully, 1986).