IVAN Day’s swans are exquisite creatures. Elegant with majestic poise, they ...

Date: Saturday 12th November 2005

IVAN Day’s swans are exquisite creatures. Elegant with majestic poise, they never fail to grace their surroundings and command attention and admiration. Without doubt, they are rare birds; in fact, they are unique to the village of Shap, where Mr. Day has lived for the past 25 years.

But Mr. Day does not breed swans; as a food historian he creates them. His birds are decorative and are used as centre pieces in his recreations of food in period settings, dating from 17th to 20th Century, and are exhibited in museums and stately homes in this country and abroad.

According to requirements, Mr. Day’s swans vary is size and substance, but the edible ones have been created in ice cream, butter and aspic jelly in moulds from various centuries, which Mr. Day has collected over a number of years and which are just part of his working collection of antique kitchen equipment.

The swan has featured prominently in banquets and feasts because over the years it has been a favourite savoury dish as well as being a popular shape for desserts and sugar sculpture table decorations, which Mr. Day creates from a powdered sugar and gum mixture. Although very realistic, his exhibition swan dishes are only models of roasted birds or very ornately decorated pies, which he recreates by copying illustrations from recipe books he has collected, some dating from Shakespeare’s time the author of one published in 1615, a Gervase Markham, is an ancestor of Canon Gervase Markham, the former vicar of Morland.

“Nowadays, swans are the property of the Crown and they are protected,” he explained, “but in the 17th Century there was only about five million people living in England and the place was teeming with wildlife, fish and birds, so people ate swans and recipes were created. A lot of the food at that time was spectacular.


“Roasted swan was also a popular Christmas dish with the Victorians. The birds were usually born in June so by December they were fully fledged with their winter plumage and the cygnets were fattened up and were nice and tender to eat. People in Norfolk were still eating swans in the 1950s.”

Several years ago Mr. Day was given the chance to sample swan meat when a friend in Norfolk had to put a badly injured young bird out of its misery after it became entangled in barbed wire.

“It tasted like duck, a little fishy,” he said. “The bird was roasted, but it was a bit dry as swans don’t have a lot of fat on them.”

Another swan which he was able to taste was the beautiful ice cream creation which he made earlier this year as one of the desserts for a Victorian ball supper at the historic home of Lord and Lady Inglewood, at Hutton-in-the-Forest.

The supper was one of a six-part Border Television series called Hungry for the Past in which Mr. Day, donned in “whites”, explained and demonstrated how food was prepared, cooked and served during different periods over the past 350 years. On the supper table, his swan was surrounded by courting doves and baskets of fruit, also created from home-made ice cream, multi-layered jellies with spires, and cakes moulded to look like Byzantine churches these were complemented by his magnificent sugar sculptures.

“I usually make my ice cream swans from bergamot water ice, which is a lemon sorbet with a few drops of bergamot oil added to the mix this gives it a lovely Earl Gray tea flavour and is a very old recipe,” Mr. Day said.

“If you make a swan from a milk or cream-based ice cream it doesn’t take the detail of the mould well. Whereas, a water ice not only picks out all the lovely detail, but after five minutes or two on the table, atmospheric moisture starts to freeze on the swan in the form of a fine feathery rime, actually looking like swan’s down!

“Making an ice cream swan is very demanding as, first, you have to find what is a very rare pewter mould and, second, get it out of the mould without breaking the neck! Remarkably, it will stay solid in a moderately cool room for about an hour.

“Victorian ice cream makers often went the whole hog and displayed their ice cream swan surrounded by bull rushes and other aquatic vegetation.”

Although the Victorians enjoyed elaborate fare, as they has good quality ingredients, they appear to have been fairly reserved in their taste compared to wealthy 17th Century diners, who also were partial to swan, often prepared in two different ways for the same meal.

In a bill of fare for Christmas Day in Robert May’s 1660 cookery book (which Mr. Day affectionately calls his Bruce Forsyth book because the illustration of the author bears a strikingly resemblance to Brucie), it is suggested the two-course meal should consist of around 40 dishes!

Oyster, veal, partridge, mutton, venison , turkey, goose and capon dishes and roasted swan are among those in the first course, while larks, pickled pig, roasted kid and swan pie are a few of the second course delicacies.

“English food was at its best in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The quality of food was good as there was no agricultural chemicals and there was a much wider variety of ingredients than you would have thought possible. Food also cooks quicker and tastes better when roasted in front of a fire it takes a lot longer to cook in an oven,” Mr. Day said.

“The suggested Christmas bill of fare was rather like a buffet which a wealthy family of the time would have sat down to eat. It’s a lot of food and usually only a fraction of it was consumed so the leftovers were given to the poor.

“People have the impression that dining centuries ago was some kind of uncouth free-for-all with guests eating with their fingers and throwing the leftover bones over their shoulders on to the floor but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, somebody like Henry Vlll would have had about seven noblemen serving him and there was a complex code of etiquette.”

Mr. Day believes English cookery has seen better days and it is unfortunate that most contemporary chefs and cooks look to other cultures for inspiration for new ideas, when they could look at our past and its remarkable gastronomic riches, many of them gems.

In the historic kitchen of his 17th Century farmhouse, which has been restored to function as it would centuries ago - complete with spit and other authentic cooking utensils - Mr. Day runs unique practical courses on period cookery, which he started in response to repeated requests from friends, food writers, chefs and museum staff. Under his guidance, he has introduced a range of people to the forgotten delights of English food and the remarkable skills which were once employed in its production.

He said: “I’ve been running courses since 1990, initially at Kirkoswald, and I’ve had all sorts of people on them, including good food guide inspectors, visitors from abroad, and I even had a surgeon, whose sewing skills were very impressive.

“I’m keen to use local produce and I grow herbs. I’m hoping to create a vegetable garden next year in which I’ll grow unusual vegetables and I intend to plant an orchard. I’m afraid Shap isn’t the ideal place to grow fruit.”

Since setting up his website www.historicfood.com, which has 20,000 visitors each month, Mr. Day’s work has attracted the attention of some rather surprising celebrities.

He said: “A few weeks ago somebody phoned me on behalf of Marilyn Manson. He wanted me to do a medieval banquet reception for the rock singer when he marries a burlesque artiste in an Irish castle in December, but I turned it down. Then, only a few days ago, somebody phoned me and asked if I’d answer questions for Paul O’Grady about the type of food people ate centuries ago.”

Since his first exhibition at Bowes Museum in 1994, when he recreated six period rooms using items from the museum’s collection, Mr. Day says “the phone has never stopped ringing”. His work has been exhibited in many museums, including the Paul Getty Research Institute, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of London, Fairfax House and the Rothschild Collection.

“Obviously, the food in the exhibitions sometimes has to be fake otherwise it would go off,” Mr. Day explained. “We try to make it look as authentic as possible. For example, we wanted to use lobster in one exhibition, so we took a lobster apart and my colleague Tony Barton, who lives in York, made moulds of the parts in resin and tin, which were painted and put back together again the finished product was good enough to fool a marine biologist who visited the exhibition!”

The moulds which Mr. Day uses for his artistic creations come from various sources and many were sold by Mrs. Agnes Marshall, a Victorian cookery teacher, who specialised in moulded ice creams and published four books in which she gave recipes, serving suggestions and advertised her products. However, he believes his swan butter print was carved locally and was a symbol of the farm where the product came from.

When staging his exhibitions, Mr. Day works closely with the museum staff and English Heritage and on numerous occasions has used very valuable items, for example, George lV’s dinner service and original cutlery and table linen.

He said: “We used six or seven pieces from the royal collection for one exhibition, but before we could use a soup tureen, the Queen’s diary had to be checked in case she needed it for a banquet fortunately she didn’t!”