The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.


A Note From The Edge (of the Forest of Dean) on Swan Lake

I was reading an account of a medieval banquet the other day and came to the conclusion that the 21st Century isn’t so bad after all. There were about ten courses, each consisting of seven or eight dishes. The highlight was a swan stuffed with various other birds.

My oven is too small for a swan and I suspect that we gave up eating them for the sole reason that better things came along. I should imagine that they need a lot of cooking and they will be quite tough. If I find myself at a medieval banquet and someone offers me a slice, I shall try it. But I’m not going to go out of my way to hunt one down, pluck, prepare and cook it.

Apparently, swan is still eaten in Eastern Europe. This is probably a fact, but if you add prejudice and ignorance, the truth can get horribly distorted....

There is an urban myth that the immigrants from the former Soviet Bloc countries are eating all of our swans. There is also a sub-myth that this is High Treason and you can still be executed for it, because all swans belong to the Queen. Presumably, she has one for tea every Tuesday. There may well be a freezer in the basement of Buckingham Palace full of them.

Swan with Frog

I’ll deal with the sub-myth first. Because we haven’t got a written constitution, English law is a bit of a mess and there are many anomalies. When the death penalty was abolished, someone forgot to repeal an archaic law that related to offences against the monarch. For many years, even mildly upsetting the King or Queen was normally regarded as High Treason. This used to happen quite a bit, but the monarchs became a little wary after Charles the First got a dose of his own medicine. Anyway, until quite recently, it was technically a capital offence to piss off the Queen, although she has never said “Off with his head...”

Now, Her Majesty happens to own a few swans. They are a specific type of swan and they live on a specific stretch of the river Thames. Once a year, a bloke called the Master of the Swan (I’m not making this up), performs a ceremony called “Swan-Upping” where he counts them to make sure that none have been misappropriated. This post is especially important now that there is no longer a deterrent; it is good to see that our taxes are not being totally wasted on schools and hospitals. As a result of all this nonsensical flummery, the incorrectly received wisdom amongst us Brits was not to steal swans as you could end up getting your head chopped off.

That was the sub-myth. The principal myth was that Polish people were pinching our swans and having them for dinner. The poor Poles were also charged with not taking proper account of our “heritage” and, if not committing High Treason, were certainly committing a calumny against our dear old Queen.

I was in the pub and the local bigot was in full flow: “They come over here, taking our jobs, sending their kids to our schools…blah, blah, blah…” I was doing my best to ignore him. “They even nick the swans out of the park”. Here we go again, I thought. “They’ve had to put up notices in Polish telling them that it is against the law--Look, I took a photo on my mobile”. At this point my curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to see the evidence. “Let’s have a look”, I said. He flicked through the photographs on his mobile phone camera and showed me a photo of a sign by a lake.

Me: “When did you take this”?
Bigot: “When we went to the rugby”.
Me: “Where was that, then”?
Bigot: “Somewhere in Wales”.
Me: “Do you mind if I… ”?
Bigot: “No. Go ahead”.

I wrote down the words on the sign. When I got home, I got out a dictionary and translated every word. My suspicions were confirmed. The sign said “Private Property, No Fishing” - in Welsh.

©Charlie Burling, 2009