This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
By the Romans the Swan, first deprived of its sight, was fattened for the table. In Chaucer's time the meat of a plump Swan was evidently in favour for giving a good ruddy complexion to the men of that day. We read respecting the Monk, in the Canterbury Tales (1385): -
"Now certainly he was a fayre prelat; He was not pale, as a forpined gost; A fat swan loved he best of any rost".
Pepys tells in his Diary (January 19th, 1662): "To Mr. Povy's, where really I made a most excellent, and large dinner, he bidding us, in a frolique, to call for what we had a mind, and he would undertake to give it us; and we did, for prawns, Swan. venison, after I had thought the dinner was quite done, and he did immediately produce it, which I thought great plenty".
In more modern days a different experience is recorded: "When I was a girl my father shot a Swan - a wild one, as he thought - passing over our village before a storm. Alas! it belonged to a nobleman, his dearest friend, and was only taking a frisk round on its own account from the lonely lake where it lived. That bird was skinned for its plumage, and throughout many winters I was the envy of the whole village with a boa, muff, and cuffs of Swansdown feathering. The slaughtered bird was straightway spitted for roasting, and basting. Oh! the smell !! Whitby after a great catch of herrings wouldn't have been in it! The maids turned sick, my grandmother and aunts followed suit, also my grandfather; furthermore, a groom called in for the job turned sick in like fashion; and then, with the confidence of youth, I volunteered to baste that Swan! At last, amid great excitement, he was ready, with the gravy made, and a dish found big enough to hold him; and then with a solemn procession of the family he was served in state.
Several of the neighbours came in to have a taste; but, sad to relate, a taste was enough! Of all the tough, stringy, fishy meats I ever tried, that Swan was the worst! Our efforts ended with hacking just a few slices from the breast; but what the legs and wings were like was left unproved. The mistake was that this old Swan had long passed the Cygnet stage".
There is, or was, a Swan pit at Norwich, where Cygnets had their abode for table purposes, being specially fed with this view; and it has been declared that a wild Swan, if killed when young, equals in appetizing flavour a wild duck. The Cygnet should be prepared and trussed like a goose, receiving a stuffing of which three pounds of minced rump steak are an essential ingredient; it is then wrapped in oiled paper, next in water-paste, and again oiled paper, and roasted like venison; the package requires roasting for at least four hours before a large fire on the spit. It must be frequently basted with butter made liquid by melting. Or, it would be far preferable (says Dr. Thudicum) to bake the Cygnet in a good oven. The popular notion, derived from Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, has no foundation in fact, that "The jealous Swan agens hire deth that syngeth." In Germany giblet pie is a well-known dish, the giblets being stewed with pork chops, and pears, whilst flavoured with sugar, and cloves. The giblets of a Cygnet are esteemed an ambrosial morsel, and form a lordly dish.
In England, on the Thames-side, a supper of two Cygnets is served annually for appreciative guests at the "Coach and Horses Inn,"Barnes.