Food historians tell us the practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas, like many other Christian holiday food traditions, was borrowed from earlier cultural practices. Peacocks, swans, geese, duck, guinea fowl, and turkeys all fit this bill in times past. The larger the bird, the more festive the presence. “New World” turkeys were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. For many years, these “exotic” turkey birds only graced the tables of the wealthy. In America, turkey (wild and plentiful) was a natural choice for the Christmas feast. Historic newspapers reveal the goose still 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
The roasted poultry we associate with traditional Christmas dinner would only have been one part of a bigger feast including venison, mutton, and various other meats. In the past, a traditional feast would have several courses with multiple dishes for each course. People would roast fowl throughout the year but especially at Christmas because they were at their fattest and most succulent. As early as the 16th-century farmers were growing turkeys for the English table due to the ease in breeding and farming 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.
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