King Al­fred’s Cakes-Hard, taste­less and ined­i­ble

The Sligo Champion - - LIFESTYLE - JIM HUR­LEY’S

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.

King Al­fred’s Cakes are com­mon black mush­rooms found grow­ing of fallen Ash branches.

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