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Stories & Scripts

Source: Adults

Author: Barry Gee

Title: Steamed Mute Swan.

Alexander, the emigre Russian chef, had learned to cook from a book dated 1784 but it was a reprint of an earlier edition. He had numerous recipes for wild boar, brown bear and venison but his favourite, which he had never tried, was a recipe for steamed swan.

He was working as the head chef of a small country inn in Surrey when I met him for the first time back in 1960-something. There was not a lot of call for brown bear steaks or wild boar ragout in that part of the country. Beef, pork and lamb were the staple meats for the people of Upper Wardingham. They might have tried venison had it been offered as a 'Special' but they could live happily without it. As for swan; they could no more eat swan than they could devour their own pet dog. Such graceful creatures and so white. Besides, it was illegal.

Alexander had heard that only the royal family were allowed to eat swans and this made him indignant. He couldn't understand why the British people allowed themselves to be treated this way. It was just like Russia before the revolution. Why did the British people not rise up and demand freedom? Alexander fumed and fretted as he grilled the lamb cutlets and wished had had a more noble animal than a sheep on which to lavish his culinary soul.

Alexander's mother had been a dancer in the Bolshoi ballet and she had brought him with her when he was sixteen years old and she was dancing for a season in England. The evening before the troupe were due to return to Russia she took him to a room in Kilburn, gave him several hundred pounds and told him to remain in England. There was food for a week and he didn't leave the house for ten days.

As the son of a principal dancer in the Bolshoi he had been privileged. He had gone to a private school in Moscow and spoke English very well. In the room that his mother had found for him he discovered an old recipe book which had been written by the chef to an old aristocratic family. This had been all he had to read for ten days. The bread his mother had left grew stale and became mouldy after a few days but he ate it. The cooked meat began to smell and the surface became shiny and sticky but this didn't stop him eating it. When the food ran out he waited a couple of days for the pain of hunger to become unbearable and then he ventured out. Through all this empty time, alone in a strange land, he read the recipe book. He ate rank meat on green bread while he memorised the ingredients of a most wonderful stew. During the two days when he did not eat at all he studied desserts which were made with eggs and fresh cream and finished with spun sugar. He imagined how he could improve on them. He frequently burst into tears when the taste of some fantasised concoction became real on his tongue and the pleasure was too much to bear without the release of crying.

Alexander knew that the few hundred pounds would not last for ever and realised that he would have to find a way to earn a living. The very first day that he ventured out onto the streets of North West London he saw a notice in a restaurant window saying help was required. He got the job and after just ten minutes in the heady atmosphere of a busy kitchen he decided to become a chef.

He had worked in many kitchens before arriving in Upper Wardingham but this was the first time he had taken on the role of head chef. It was a small brigade; just three other chefs and a commis, but he had the passion of the chef de cuisine in a large, prestigious London hotel. The inn gained a reputation for good, traditional English cooking but Alexander craved the excitement and satisfaction of preparing an animal that had not been bred for the table. I suggested a game bird, such as a partridge, but he scoffed at the idea. He wanted to work on a large canvas, not paint miniatures. He had a dozen recipes for golden eagle but had given up trying to procure one. He longed for a swan. He turned down my idea of using a goose as being too noisy. I did a double take and then asked him what he meant by too noisy. He said that his recipe called for a mute swan from Westen Asia and they were no longer imported into this country. I pressed him for the recipe and he reluctantly showed it to me.

Under an italicised heading assuring the reader that what was to follow was a 'novel way to entertain your guests' there was a recipe for Steamed Mute Swan. There was a short paragraph about how to choose the best bird and the advice that 'some ladies might prefer to wait in another room until the cooking is complete'. I was fascinated by this and read on.

If I was to follow the instructions I should take a live swan and bind the wings firmly to its body so that it could not 'flap them and cause a commotion amongst the ladies'. I should then fix its feet to a thick wooden board with 'broad-headed nails'. I was beginning to understand why a 'mute' swan was required. I should then bind the legs in such a way that it was forced into a sitting position. On a metal tray, surrounding the bird, fires would be lit but 'not too close so as to singe the feathers' as this would give an 'unwelcome flavour to the meat'. In front of the swan, positioned so that it had easy access, I should place a bowl of water and 'replenish it whenever necessary'. I was told that at first it would only drink now and then but as it became dehydrated in the heat of the fires it would drink more copiously. After a while it would keep its head next to the dish and lap up water almost continuously. Within thirty minutes, I was assured, I would be able to pluck the feathers out cleanly without causing any discomfort or distress to the swan. I should get all my guest to join in this activity and there could even be a competition to see who could 'amass the most feathers'.

I couldn't believe what I was reading. It was a recipe for cooking a swan while it was still alive and I knew that it would not go down too well with the residents of Upper Wardingham. Lobster had been taken off the menu when the local women's institute had complained that it was cruel to plunge them into boiling water while they were still alive.

Once all the feathers had been removed from the swan, the naked bird had to be basted with fine pork dripping. The effect of the great heat from outside and the vast quantity of water on the inside would create a partly steamed and partly roasted swan which would be 'as tender as a springe chicken'. The book went on to advise that slices could be taken freely from the outside of the bird but one should be careful not to cut too deeply because the swan was still capable of trying to struggle free if wounded by a carelessly wielded carving knife. The recipe ended by saying that if the preparation and cooking of the swan had been done correctly it should still be alive, although comatose, when the last morsel of flesh was gnawed from a thigh.

Recently, business took me once again to Upper Wardingham and I enquired about Alexander only to be told that he had lost his job some months earlier. The bartender had only recently taken up his position but he had heard that there had been a scandal surrounding Alexander, a peacock and the local rugy team.

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