Food historians tell us the practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas is like many other Christian holiday food traditions in that the idea was borrowed from earlier cultural traditions. Peacocks, swans, geese, duck, pheasant, guinea fowl, and turkeys have topped the list for centuries.
The larger the bird, the more festive the presence. The wandering, wild turkeys indigenous to America were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. For many years, these “exotic” turkey birds only graced the tables of the wealthy. In America, a very big turkey was a natural choice for the family Christmas feast. Historic newspapers reveal the goose commanded a traditional place on the Christmas table through the 19th century.
“Apart from the wild and tame fowl for everyday consumption, there were a few which were outstanding as celebratory birds for feasts and festivals. These were swans and peacocks among the rich, and herons and bustards for those less well off. The peacock made a fine show on a festive occasion… More usual than peacocks at feasts of the nobility were swans. The Percy Family [Medieval England] at them on the principal festivals of the church at the rate of five for Christmas Day, four for Twelfth Night, three for New Year’s Day… The family consumed an enormous range of both moor and waterfowl during the year, but the swans were appointed for those special days. Swan was roasted like goose, and served with chawdron sauce…”
~Food & Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson, 1991
In the past, a traditional Christmas feast would have several courses, with multiple dishes for each course. The roasted poultry, or poultries, would have merely been one part of a feast that included venison, mutton, and other meats. People roasted fowl throughout the year but especially at Christmas because the birds were at their fattest and most succulent after the months of free feeding. As early as the 16th-century farmers were growing turkeys for the English table due to the ease in breeding domesticated turkeys versus other fowl, such as geese.
Roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce. Swan was also served stuffed with a series of increasingly smaller birds, in the style of a turducken. Swans have been the property of the Crown since around the twelfth century, but Edward IV’s Act Concerning Swans in 1482 clearly defined that ownership. There was a caveat to the law, however. 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. 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 granted by the Crown to the various owners. Between 1450 and 1600, there were about 630 swan marks recorded for different owners of swans on London waters alone.
Mature swans have little subcutaneous fat and their flesh is exceedingly dry, making them a tough and entirely unsuitable meat. Can’t speak from personal experience on that! Eating the mature, plumed swan in Medieval times was more of a statement than culinary treat. Yet, in most instances it was not an adult swan that ended up in the pot or on the grill. Cygnets (baby swans) hatched in June and were plump and tender by December, perfect for a Christmas meat still tender and fatty.
Birds were not exclusively served roasted and adorned on a shiny silver platter. Cutting the meat of the fowl, or in most cases several different fowl, and encasing into a pie was common. Yorkshire was the home of the Christmas Pie, a huge pastry filled with a turkey stuffed with a goose, a duck, a partridge, and a pigeon – all with bones removed and any gaps filled with pieces of hare and woodcock. One precursor to the modern Turducken, only WAY more extravagant! The raw birds were baked inside and encased by the pastry (see image below) so that the fat released from the goose fried the dry turkey in the sealed pie-case, producing succulent meat. When the pie had cooled, clarified butter was poured through a hole in the lid to seal the meat in, ensuring that it would keep for months.
These huge pies were designed to be eaten cold and were frequently sent long distances as gifts. The crust was often embellished with pastry decorations. One, served to Queen Victoria on Christmas Day in 1847, was so large that it had to be carried to table on a stretcher by four footmen!
Another precursor to the modern Turducken is the rôti sans pareil. In the historical world of engastration (stuffing animals inside other animals) and chimera (melding animals together) cooking, the true king of culinary absurdity comes from L’almanach des gourmands, an 1807 cookbook written by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimond de la Reyniere. His creation was called the rôti sans pareil —the roast without equal— and that isn’t an ostentatious claim.
Reyniere’s recipe called for a bustard stuffed with a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a pheasant stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck stuffed with a guinea fowl stuffed with a teal stuffed with a woodcock stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a plover stuffed with a lapwing stuffed with a quail stuffed with a thrush stuffed with a lark stuffed with an ortolan bunting stuffed with a garden warbler (17 birds!) stuffed with an olive stuffed with an anchovy stuffed with a single caper. Whew! But there is MORE!
Layers of Lucca chestnuts, force meat (pig sausage, basically), and bread stuffing were added between each bird, the whole thing placed into a hermetically sealed pot with a bath of onion, clove, carrots, chopped ham, celery, thyme, parsley, mignonette, salted pork fat, salt, pepper, coriander, garlic, and “other spices.” It was slowly cooked over a fire for at least 24 hours. Yikes!
For a bit more on the Turducken, check out my companion blog post today: More Than One Way to Cook a Turkey
Leaving the ridiculous concoctions to the past, these days if a bird is the menu choice for Christmas it is most likely going to be a turkey. At least here in the US. However, while a swan or peacock is highly unlikely to be seen carried onto the table, other birds such as a goose, duck, or pheasant, remain viable options and not too uncommon.
What is your traditional Christmas menu meat of choice?