King Alfred was a terrible cook. In fact (but really in legend) while hiding from the Danes, he’d left a whole batch of cakes in the oven. They were suitably burnt and naturally ruined. So I can only guess he went to the woods and scattered them everywhere on dead ash trees to try and cover up his mistake and pass them off as some kind of fungus. Or something!
King Alfred’s Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) attach themselves on the dead wood of broad leaved trees, mainly ash and beech. It’s one of those distinctive fungi I see every almost every time I’m out in woodland. Although their season is summer to autumn, the older specimens linger on the wood for years and years.
Their appearance is literally that of some burnt cakes or even lumps of smooth charcoal. Older fruit bodies have a shiny surface, but younger developing fruit bodies are red/brown in colour with a duller surface. If you were to cut one open it would reveal silver/light and black concentrical zones (hence the ‘concentrica’ in the scientific name), very similar to the ring zones of a tree – or at least half a tree (due to their hemispherical shape).
Other ‘common’ names for this fungus are Coal Fungus (for obvious reasons) and Cramp Balls because it used in an old folk remedy for night cramps. I think I’d rather have the night cramps!
And as a great bush craft tip, these beauties are great for starting fires! The inner flesh of an old, dry specimen can be lit with a ‘firesteel’ flint for example (or even a magnifying glass). It will slowly smolder, much like your barbecue briquette and can be used to light your tinder.
But needless to say – much like burnt cakes – these fungi are not edible.