Tag Archives: fungi

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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Filed under Britain, foraging, General, history, natural history

Chicken-of-the-Woods

I have written a few posts on foraging and natural history in Britain, here’s a little post about a lovely edible mushroom:

As I was walking in Lyme Park at the weekend I kept an eye out for edible goodies. Lyme Park is great for oyster mushrooms because of the large number of beech trees in the forests there. However, I did not expect to find a splendid chicken-of-the woods growing on a dead tree trunk just off the path to the children’s play area! Goodness knows how many had walked past it unaware of the delicious treat..

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Although I am by no means an expert, I recognised it straight away – a large bracket fungus with multiple brackets with a beautiful and almost garish orange and sulphur-yellow coloration. In fact, another name for it is the sulphur polypore (the polypore part is because it doesn’t have gills on its underside like a typical fungus, but many tiny pores). There really is nothing else like it, so you can be pretty certain of what it is.

However, before I go on: always confirm you have correctly identified the fungus and check more than one field guide. The two I use are the River Cottage Handbook No.1: Mushrooms, for quick reference and the Collins Fungi Guide for more detailed descriptions. If you are not 100% sure of what you are picking, don’t pick it!

As with all fungi there is a certain amount of variation – there can be many brackets or a few, they can be a range of widths from a few inches to a couple of feet, the brackets can be neat and flat, or can look as though they’ve poured out and frozen, like orange lava, in a Dali-esque manner. The one I found had grown around blades of grass, trapping them like flies on amber. I didn’t take it all because I thought I’d see if the intact part would grow back – if I’m lucky I might be able to collect a regular ‘crop’ over the next few months!

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo in situ because my phone has run out of batteries, but here’s a few pictures I have found in books and on the ‘net that shows off this variation:

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From (in order) John Wright, First Nature, Cornell University, Malcolm Storey

Chicken-of-the-woods, or to give its scientific name Laetiporus sulphurous, is only found on trees, and the trees can be living or dead. It is usually found in the Summer and Autumn, and occasionally in Winter if it is a mild one. It grows most commonly upon oak and also yew, cedar, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow. It is worth pointing out that all Laetiporus species are edible except if found growing on poisonous trees such as yew and cedar.

Whilst on the subject of edibility, I should also mention that Laetiporus sulphurous is only edible when cooked.

Cooking with Chicken-of-the-Woods

This fungus is called chicken-of-the-woods because it’s firm flesh is pale and fibrous but tender, like chicken breast. For that reason it makes an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians. What a coincidence it is that I have a friend visiting me who is vegetarian; we could put the chickeniness to the test.

I did hope it was good because the chicken-of-the-woods I found was pretty big, weighing in at 2 kilograms and bigger than my head! It therefore would keep me and my visiting friend Stuart in meals for most of the week.

Preparing it is simple. Separate the brackets from each other and trim away and tough woody bits then rinse it under the tap briefly to get rid of any soil and creepy-crawlies, then slice it reasonably thinly. Then it is just a question of integrating it into a recipe. As you slice, you’ll notice that the flesh is rather dry, so when frying it you should add a little water so that it can absorb it and become more typically mushroomy in texture.

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Its firm flesh is tender and yielding and definitely has a truffle aroma and flavour when cooked – there’s a lot of umami going on in that mushroom! It’s definitely the tastiest wild mushroom I have found thus far. We couldn’t understand why it hasn’t been cultivated as food because it was so substantial and satisfying, and better than any TVP, Quorn or other mock meats. Maybe I’ve found a gap in the market…

Here’s what I made with it:

One third was turned in simple mushrooms on toast  – a recipe can be found for that here – the only changes I made was to add a little water after a few minutes’ sautéing, and to omit the cream/milk. Whenever you try a mushroom the first time, this is the thing to cook for it shows it off in all its glory! It fed 4.

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The second third was used in a stir fry with the typical stir-fry veg, soy, (vegetarian) oyster sauce and, again, some water. This really showed off its meaty qualities. Excellent. This fed 2.

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The last third was a spinach and chicken-of-the-woods lasagne. I made a simple béchamel sauce flavoured with Lancashire cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, then sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil, added some water and steamed the spinach on top of the mushrooms. Everything was layered up in the usual way, finished with some Parmesan and breadcrumbs and baked. This fed 4….

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Now it is all used up, and we didn’t even get bored of it. I do hope another grows back on that tree trunk…

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, foraging, natural history, nature, Recipes, Uncategorized, Vegetables