Dr Sue Bailey investigates the food history of May balls – and did St John’s college really dine on roast swan?
Students this month are celebrating ‘May Week’. Only in Cambridge would this be two weeks at the end of June. The reason for this apparent calendar confusion dates back to 1882, when the college May boat races were moved to June, and it now marks the end of exams with garden parties, elegant May balls and other college events. These are either firework-dusted fairy tales or extravagant all-night parties, depending on the views of different residents in Cambridge.
But what have swans and gin got to do with Cambridge’s May balls? Roast swan or ‘le cygne Saint Jean’ is a dish permitted by law to only a very limited number of institutions in the United Kingdom – and the Queen. St John’s College was one of the few places where swan was supposedly eaten at May balls up until the early nineties. I remember it described on their menu in the late seventies when my student husband-to-be was trying to impress me with his intellect.
How times change, and thankfully custom-made gin is now the way that ball organisers hope to create a buzz instead of eating swans. The Cambridge Distillery is currently producing exclusive gins for numerous colleges, with the owner, Will Lowe, commenting: “Cambridge college balls are magical events. Yes, they are noisy and a bit exclusive – but it’s almost like Cambridge gets another Christmas.”
At one college, the seasonal herbs of lemon thyme and lemon verbena, plus secret fragrant botanicals, will be ‘picked and gently distilled from the gardens where the students have passed through to and from lectures and exams, providing a unique memento.
Talking of booze, the historic excesses of 38 celebratory Trinity College men at their boat club dinner (an early fore-runner to May balls) were impressive even by current student standards. This was when Queen Victoria had just ascended to the throne. Revellers drank two bottles a head of wine, champagne and sherry, plus consuming 12 pints of ale and a vast amount of punch. Sadly, the food served wasn’t recorded, so we’ll have to use our imaginations.
Celebrations became more elegant by the time women were invited as guests. Trinity College had its first May ball in 1866, with guests enjoying a ‘handsome supper’. The St John’s College Lady Margaret Ball started in 1888, and Kings College had their first one twelve years later.
By the twenties, local newspaper reports speak of college balls with artistic, lavish and tasteful decorations, refreshment marquees, supper tents, fairy lanterns and carpeted pathways.
College balls with artistic, lavish decorations, supper tents and fairy lanterns
The First and Third Trinity May Ball (named after the two key college boat clubs) was held in the Corn Exchange with ‘dainty statues, garlanded pictures of the river and college and three suppers, each for over two hundred persons’, but no swans.
In fact, it has never been established whether the St John’s College dinner swans on offer were real (evidence welcomed) or otherwise embellished fowl. The college archivist says that “there is proof of the consumption of cygnets through to 1896. A letter from 1950 records the use of wax swan wings and a thick white bechamel sauce to create the effect of swan down and, until 1986, swan was served (in some form or another) at the May ball.”
But how would you cook a swan and what does it actually taste like? In the fifties, renowned food historian Dorothy Hartley gives a recipe for roasting to “prepare as a turkey if young, if old the same treatment as an antique fowl”, greased and covered with green herbs, using a flour and water crust to keep the swan moist.
Swans were often originally served with a well-spiced medieval-style sauce to disguise the muddy taste if they were not fattened on oats. The birds were actually marketed in quantity until after the Second World War. By then, St Helen’s Hospital in Norwich was the last place in England to keep swans for food. The birds were prepared and sent out with an instructional poem starting: “Take three pounds of beef, beat fine in a mortar, put into the swan – that is when you’ve caught her.”
Now, colleges such as Corpus Christi are conscious of their environmental impact, and their experimental dining menu is completely vegan. So, eating swans, boars’ heads and other exotic fare has given way to use of local suppliers such as Steak & Honour at Darwin’s May ball, plus sustainability awareness with Bread4Life serving wood-fired pizzas and supporting those in need.
But if we cannot attend a May ball, at least we can celebrate World Gin Day on 8 June. So, enjoy a gin-based tipple at one of the great cocktail bars in Cambridge such as 196 on Mill Road, 1815 The Union Bar, 2648 on Trinity Street or Hidden Rooms down Jesus Lane – and then go and watch the sparkling fireworks.