It’s a story familiar to most of us:
King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.
Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes
The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:
“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”
Well that’s him told!
It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.
Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?
As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.
The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)
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King Alfred – who he?
King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!
The security of theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.
Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.
Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.
The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)
Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?
For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.
Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.
Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!