Roast Swans

No, sadly, we did not get to cook a whole roast swan, although if we had, it might look something like this:

It’s not for want of trying. The truth is that we’re not somewhere we could hunt our own, and they’re just too blasted expensive to order. We’ve searched online and found two options:

  1. Order swan for $900. (Small print: it comes live, still flapping, and very, very annoyed.)
  2. Order frozen, dressed swan for $1500. Yowch.
Clearly, neither of these was a route we could take. Yes, we could substitute goose. But until a benevolent Scrooge delivers one to our door, it’s going to have to wait. Instead, I’ve opted to do a more scholarly post on the roasting and eating of swans from the Middle Ages.

Swans have a long and quirky history in the UK. Back to at least the 12th century, the majority of mute swans on the River Thames have been the property of the crown. The Vintners’ and Dyers’ Livery Companies were also granted ownership of some of the mute swans in the 15th century.

The “Act of Swans”, passed in 1482, formalized the crown’s ownership and the method of marking the swans. The marking is known as the “Swan Upping”, and happens every year. Presumably this began as a way for the royal Swan Master (yes, that’s an official position) to pick out likely cygnets for the royal table, and to divvy out ownership of the year’s new swans. Today, it’s an opportunity to do a headcount of the swans, weigh them, and check their health.

The ownership of the swans used to be denoted by marks on their bills; unmarked swans belonged to the crown. All other swans were catalogued in one of several books of swan marks. The Vintners’ swans had nicks on both sides of the beak, while the Dyers’ had a nick on just one side:

 As someone who loves old and absurd traditions, attending this one’s a must for me someday.

Despite the ban on killing and eating royal swans in London, there are a number of historical recipes pertaining to the birds. I’ve included a couple of them for curiosity’s sake.

Be warned: these give a full account of what we ought to do with that live swan once it arrives in the mail, and it’s not altogether pretty! Although from a later period, the account from colonial America is staggering in it’s scope. How many relatives could they have fed at such a groaning table?

GRRM doesn’t seem quite so mad in his descriptions of feasts, now, does he?

Recipes and accounts in Historical Cookbooks:

France, ca. 1380 – from Le Viandier de Taillevent

Subtlety of a swan reclothed in its skin including its plumage. Take the swan, inflate it between the shoulders, slit it along the belly, and remove the skin (including the neck cut close to the shoulders). Leave the feet attached to the body. Put it on the spit, bard it, and glaze it. When it is cooked, reclothe it in its skin, with the neck very upright on the plate. Eat it with Yellow Pepper [Sauce].

England, 1430 – from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books

Swan rosted. Kutte a Swan in the rove of the mouthe toward the brayne enlonge, and lete him blede, and kepe the blode for chawdewyn; or elles knytte a knot on his nek, And so late his nekke breke; then skald him. Drawe him and rost him even as thou doest goce in all poyntes, and serue him forth with chawd-wyne.

America, 1653 – from The Accomplisht Cook

“A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in Order.: Oysters. 1. A collar of brawn. 2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones. 3. A grand Sallet. 4. A pottage of caponets. 5. A breast of veal in stoffado. 6. A boil’d partridge. 7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast. 8. Minced pies. 9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce. 10. A made dish of sweet-bread. 11. A swan roast. 12. A pasty of venison. 13. A kid with a pudding in his belly. 14. A steak pie. 15. A hanch of venison roasted. 16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves. 17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste. 18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded. 19. Two large capons, one larded. 20. A Custard.

The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons. 1. A Young lamb or kid. 2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded. 3. A pig souc’t with tongues. 4. Three ducks, one larded. 5. Three pheasants, 1 larded. 6. A Swan Pye. 7. Three brace of partridge, three larded. 8. Made dish in puff paste. 9. Bolonia sausages, and anChoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish. 10. Six teels, three larded. 11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon. 12. Ten plovers, five larded. 13. A quince Pye, or warden pye. 14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded. 15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c. 16. A dish of Larks. 17. Six dried neats tongues. 18. Sturgeon. 19. Powdered Geese. Jellies.”


 So there you have it. Hopefully some day, either with goose or proper swan, I can make up a bird stuffed with mushrooms and oysters, or, my personal favorite, slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches. NOM!

14 thoughts on “Roast Swans”

  1. copperbird says:

    Come to Reading! The swan upping comes through here every year and you can find out what day they are due if you want to wave them on. Part of the river has also been designated a swan sanctuary around Caversham Bridge. I don’t envy whoever used to nick their bills though, as they’re kind of BIG.

    1. Paschendale says:

      Haha, yes I was about to pity the unfortunate employee who has to do anything with the cygnets. Separating them even temporarily from the adults has got to be a thankless job and one loaded with interest.

  2. roussefolle says:

    Traditions sure can be quite crazy!
    To add even more art to Your beautiful post: cooking of swan was described in one of the songs of Carmina Burana, collected by Carl Orff :
    Here’s the text taken from
    Olim lacus colueram,
    olim pulcher exstiteram,
    dum cygnus ego fueram.
    Miser, miser!
    modo niger
    et ustus fortiter!
    Girat, regirat garcifer;
    me rogus urit fortiter;
    propinat me nunc dapifer.
    Miser, miser!
    modo niger
    et ustus fortiter!
    Nunc in scutella iaceo,
    et volitare nequeo;
    dentes frendentes video.
    Miser, miser!
    modo niger
    et ustus fortiter!
    Once I had dwelt on lakes, once I had been beautiful, when I was a swan. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!
    The cook turns me back and forth; I am roasted to a turn on my pyre; now the waiter serves me. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!
    Now I lie on the dish, and I cannot fly; I see the gnashing teeth. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!
    And here’s song sung:

    1. Paschendale says:

      Haha! Gotta love the lyrics to that one! They are awful and hilarious at the same time. I found the phrase, “poor wretch, now black and well roasted” running through my head for the rest of the day after seeing this post. Thanks for the laugh, roussefolle!

      1. roussefolle says:

        Yeah, they knew their black humor in Dark Ages!

  3. thanerosse says:

    It is also actually illegal to eat swan here in the UK! Or at least, it is illegal to eat a swan without the permission from the Queen herself! However, there is one exception as far as I know, and that is they do occasionally serve swan (reportedly) at feasts in St. John’s College (part of the University of Cambridge) through some long held tradition.
    And @copperbird, I studied in Reading for 3 years and never knew about this! I would have loved to have seen the swan upping it sounds really interesting. Serves the swans right to be manhandled a bit too, they used to swim in the river at the University sometimes and bully the other birds for the bread students fed them!

  4. Yvonne says:

    Wow! Thanks for such a well researched post, I love it! I’m secretly glad you didn’t cook a real swan, though. Although if you had, I wonder if it would taste like chicken? Did you see the episode of the “Tudors” where Henry had two swans and he was admiring them whilst on a walk in the gardens with Anne Boleyn? Later he had the female swan turned into a meal. Yikes! I guess it was supposed to be an analogy for Anne. Is dove pie next on your plate?
    I’d love to go to a swan upping, too.

  5. ShiftlessBannerman says:

    I’ve never had swan, but I have goose quite regularly, I hunt them with my father every fall as they pass through the region. Goose is a strong, dark, oft gamey bird, and suited to cooking as such. More often than not, we turn the majority of it into jerky! The birds are quite plentiful, so once the season rolls around, I’ll see about getting you one if you’re interested!

    1. Needs Mead says:

      Ooh, I don’t know whereabouts you’re based, but we’d definitely be interested! Thanks!

  6. Irian says:

    All accounts I’ve read say that swan really doesn’t taste that good… so it may be the best to just write about it.

  7. Lady Viridis says:

    Interesting! I hadn’t realized that hunting/eating swans is totally illegal in the UK. A quick search for the US shows that it seems to be much like any other game hunting– you need a particular permit and there are limits to how many you can hunt, but I can’t find any other restrictions. North Carolina in particular seems to be a wintering area for swans and they have yearly hunts (I’m seeing lots of pictures of 5-6 guys in camo each holding up a dead swan.)

    I haven’t had swan myself, but my dad hunts ducks and occasionally geese every fall. I think I remember the goose tasting pretty similar to the duck; maybe a little gamier. In any case, goose would probably be a decent substitute for any swan meal. And surely goose would be less expensive to order?

  8. Jenni says:

    I love this site! Yummy and interesting stuff! I wanted to leave a little note just to say that I recently found a video on youtube called “A Tudor Feast”. They made some really elaborate foods and one of the women actually made a Swan. Here is the link:

    I thought many would like it.

  9. Moara says:

    My family has a goose for Christmas every year. We live in north america, too. Try looking for a goose again in December. You’ll definitely get it for a better price than if you order it in special, and have to ship it yourself.

    It’s not quite swan, but I bet it’s pretty close.

  10. hermousiegoodness says:

    I want to know about “powdered geese”. Geese are pretty big; I’d hate to be the person reducing one to a powder….

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