Skip to main content Skip to footer
Post header Skip post header

Dining in College: catering to all tastes, from roasted swan to quinoa biryani

Posted on Jun 24

2 min read

Dining in the company of fellow students and academic peers has long been a core strand of collegiate life. St John’s has a rich history – well documented in our fascinating archives – of attempts to satisfy the most demanding palates and ever-increasing numbers of diners.

A deep dive into the College’s food-related archives offered a fascinating look at changing tastes from Tudor times to the modern day. As the College settles back to normality after this month’s May Ball festivities, it is fascinating to read that up until the late 1980s, St John’s College May Ball menus traditionally included ‘cygnet St Jean’ or ‘roast swan’.

Only a very few institutions in the country (other than the monarchy) were allowed by law to serve the dish. However, while swan was indeed being eaten at St John’s quite regularly in the Victorian period, the so-called ‘swans’ of the late twentieth century were actually chicken or goose, with swan necks and wings of wax. You can read more about this on the College website.

Recent media coverage of the eightieth anniversary of the D-Day Landings in Normandy has reminded us of wartime privations, from which the College community was not immune. Donald Rushton (1942), who recently became a centenarian, wrote about his time as a young undergraduate during the war: ‘All meals were taken in Hall. Chapel Court was turned into a vegetable patch and rationing was applied to all members of the College. We gave our ration books in, and they were returned to us at the end of term. Bangers and mash frequently appeared, as did dried egg, and later spam and baked beans. We never went hungry.’

Fourteen years of food rationing in Britain only ended at midnight on 4 July 1954 when restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat, bacon, bread, sugar, butter and potatoes were finally lifted. Tony Orchard (1940) was also reminded of arriving at College in October 1940.  ‘I gave the porter my ration book. He said my room was A14 New Court. He also gave me a permit to enter New Court which was mostly occupied by RAF trainees, who had posted a guard on the Bridge of Sighs. Our evening meals were all served in Hall. Other meals had to be purchased. Fortunately, as far as I can remember, there was little or no rationing in restaurants.’

And so to quinoa biryani! The new Buttery, Café and Bar which opened in early 2023, designed to meet the demands of twenty-first-century studying and eating, goes to enormous lengths to offer menus catering to the widest possible range of dietary preferences. Sustainable ingredients, whole grains, organic vegetables and vegan options feature every day, but the Wednesday roast lunch and Friday fish and chips remain wildly popular.

Johnians enjoy returning to College to exercise their dining privileges and attend reunion lunches and dinners in Hall with friends from their year groups. One Johnian recently wrote to thank the organisers for a wonderful reunion event and commented that the food was some of the best he and his wife had eaten anywhere for quite some time. High praise indeed.

Do share your memories of College dining and food on Johnian Hub.