Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon

The King Alfred’s Cakes Fungus

Hello there folks, just a quick post relating to my previous one about Alfred the Great burning the cakes. As I was researching it, I came across a fungus I had not heard of before called King Alfred’s cakes. Regular readers will know that I like to go on a good forage and that I like to post about the food I find out and about.

The King Alfred’s cakes fungus, although I had not heard of it, is very recognisable to me because it is very common across the United Kingdom any time of year.

The King Alfred’s cakes fungus (English Country Garden)

The black spherically-shaped fruiting bodies are not edible, but they do look a lot like burnt balls of dough, I’ve seen them all over the place, but never bothered looking them up in a fungi field guide because you can see that they are inedible.

However, it seems that there’s an epilogue to the fable: King Alfred, so mortified was he that he’d burnt the housewife’s bread cakes, he scattered the fungal cakes to hide his mistake and embarrassment.

The fungus sprouts almost exclusively from dead elm trees and fallen branches, so keep an eye out in woods, as the chance that this fungus is present is very high, looking remarkably like small round charcoal briquettes. It doesn’t rot away quickly like most other fungi, but it sits on the dead wood getting darker and more coal-like with age.

I’m not just posting about King Alfred’s cakes because of the link to the story, but also because they did (and do) have a use in the kitchen or fireside. The fungus’s fruiting bodies, when dry and brittle catch fire easily, but smoulder at a very slow rate, and as long as they are getting plenty of oxygen, one can use them to transplant fire from one location to another. Indeed, if enough are collected, they make excellent fuel in their own right. It is for this reason that the fungus is also called coal fungus.

A smouldering fruiting body (serious Outdoor Skills)

How ironic would it be if the herdsman’s wife had used the King Alfred cake fungus to light or fuel her fire that King Alfred went to burn the cakes on!?

King Alfred’s cakes also go by the name of cramp balls, due to an old odd belief that carrying the fruiting bodies in your pocket alleviates cramp.

Natural History

The scientific name for this type of fungus is Daldinia concentrica, so-called because of the dark and light concentric growth rings you can see if you crack one open. Fruiting bodies are usually between 1 and 5 cm in diameter but can sometimes grow much larger. Daldinia is found in deciduous woodland and is almost entirely present on the dead wood of ash trees, and since the ash is our third most common tree, the chances are you’ll have some of the fungus growing in woods near you. (Not sure what an ash tree looks like? No worries just click here for an excellent description). Old fruiting bodies are black, but when they first emerge, they are red-brown colour, only blackening when mature.

Concentric light-dark growth rings (Ian Hayhurst)

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

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 burns the cakes

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.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)

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.

9th century britain

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!

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