King Alfred's Cakes - hard, tasteless and inedible
King Alfred's Cakes are not items of soft, sweet food; they are hard, tasteless and inedible black mushrooms. In the past, herbalists used them to cure cramp, so they are also known as Cramp Balls.
The well-known story goes that King Alfred, ninth-century ruler of the independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in England, was at war with the Vikings who first came to his territory as raiders but proceeded to set up winter camps and make themselves at home, threatening to seize power from him.
In one particular incident, Alfred found himself alone in the forest and took refuge in a peasant hut. The woman of the house gave him shelter but in return she asked that he keep an eye on her cakes of bread baking on the open fire. Alfred took charge as requested but, unfortunately for him, he either fell asleep or got distracted.
The cakes burned to a crisp, the woman of the house was furious, Alfred was roundly scolded, and, in frustration, he flung the burned cakes out the cottage door spattering the surrounding forest trees with small black lumps known ever since as King Alfred's Cakes.
In an attempt to roll back history and start again, some cookery books give recipes for King Alfred's Cakes: small, oatmeal cakes of scone-like bread.
King Alfred's Cakes mushrooms are very common and are almost exclusively found on Ash trees though they have been recorded growing on Beech and Alder as well. They look for all the world like smoothly-rounded, lumps of coal sitting directly on the tree bark.
The fungus feeds on dead wood so the cakes are nearly always seen on fallen trees or on branches brought down by winter gales. If they are spotted on a live tree, they indicate a dead branch. They are particularly noticeable at this time of year when Ash trees have lost all their leaves and their bare branches are clearly visible.
All of our larger fungi are divided into two distinct groups: 'the spore droppers' or Basidiomycetes and the Ascomycetes or 'Ascos'. King Alfred's Cakes are an Asco related to such highly-prized edible mushrooms as morels and truffles.
When the fungus is young its fruit body may be brown and dull but as it matures it becomes black and slightly shiny. The fungi are gregarious and grow together in small groups their fruiting bodies often touching and growing together as illustrated above.