Anglo-Saxon kings probably didn’t do much cooking and one of the best-known stories about Alfred the Great (849 – 899AD) recounts a disaster in the kitchen. Never mind the fact that he successfully defended his kingdom, Wessex, against Viking invasion, that he united the English and that he is the only English monarch to have ever been given the epithet, “the Great”; no, what everyone knows about Alfred is that he burnt the cakes!
The legend, which is recorded in a Latin text, the Annals of St Neots, goes that Alfred was on the run in Somerset after a Viking attack on Chippenham. He and his men had resorted to begging for food from peasants, including a swineherd’s wife who gave Alfred some food, but put him in charge of watching the cakes she was making. But Alfred let them burn.
As the historian Lucy Worsley explains, there are a number of interpretations of this story – which may or may not have actually happened: the cakes may be a metaphor for Wessex, which had been destroyed by the Vikings when Alfred wasn’t paying attention; or it could be read as a story of humility: even the King wasn’t above helping a peasant (and also making a mistake).
With no details about the cakes that Alfred burnt – and in fact the Latin text calls them “panes” which usually refers to bread – I have just devised a recipe to celebrate our great King, rather than one with any historical veracity. To be true to the spirit of the times I have used honey as the sweetening agent, since sugar does not appear to have come into England until the Norman Conquest (and even then it was a luxury foodstuff which would have been too expensive for the majority of the population). But this recipe is, I feel, definitely fit for an Anglo-Saxon king; just don’t let the cakes burn!
KING ALFRED’S APPLE, HONEY AND WALNUT CAKES
Ingredients (makes 10-12)
30g unsalted butter
2 heaped tablespoonfuls clear, runny honey
2 medium-sized eating apples (grated)
2 eggs, beaten
150g plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 handfuls of roughly chopped walnuts
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 190C /G5.
Put the honey and butter in a pan on a low heat to melt, then remove and set aside for a few minutes to cool slightly.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl, and then stir in the chopped walnuts.
Stir the grated apple into the melted butter and honey, and then mix in the beaten egg mixture.
Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix sufficiently to blend but don’t overbeat.
Line cake or muffin trays with paper cases and fill them about two-thirds full of the mixture.
Put in the oven to cook for 20-25 minutes. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes and then transfer, in their paper-cases, to a wire rack to continue cooling.