As Goddess of the Wild and Queen of the Woodlands, Diana holds a special place in my forager’s heart. And so for her birthday, I wanted to make a special cake (as per ancient tradition) to give thanks to “She Who Provides.” And I think this moist luscious cake, made from foraged apples and pears and spiced with the fragrant fruits of Queen Anne’s Lace, is a most fitting tribute. I made it two ways, the first like a big tart and the second into mini-bundts – both were scrumptious!
In ancient times Diana’s birthday was celebrated on the night of the August full moon, but in Rome, it was fixed to August 13th and was known as Nemoralia or Diana’s Feast of The Torches. On this night women made a torchlight procession to her lakeshore sanctuary at Lake Nemi, a sacred grove, according to the Roman poet Ovid “held sacred by a religion from the olden times”. (If you want to know more about Nemoralia watch the video at the bottom of this post.)
There they tied ribbons inscribed with prayers to trees, placed small statues on her temple altar and made food offerings like apples (sacred to Diana). Then Diana’s “birthday” cakes were set out, ringed by a circle of white candles so that they would glow like the moon.
This image of a cake, lit by a halo of light in dark forest grove, was so magical I knew I had to make my own. But how to make it? What to put in it? Details were hard to find. The precinct of Diana at Nemi included large granaries, believed to be the source of the flour used to form and bake Diana’s ritual cakes. Some were shaped in her image or body parts, others were some sort of a round honey cake, often containing cheese (like a cheesecake) or fruit. Emmer wheat was most often used.
But in the end, it was Diana herself who gave me the answer. On a late night dog walk, I came across three young bucks (deer are sacred to Diana) in a moonlit grove surrounded by forest. Around them was a field of shimmering Queen Anne’s Lace, and they stood beneath two apples and a pear tree (the remains of an abandoned orchard) munching very loudly and contently on the fallen fruit. The next morning I returned to gather the fruit and Queen Anne Lace blossoms.
Finding and using Queen Anne Lace (Wild Carrot) is easy. It grows by sunny roadways and in sunny fields just about anywhere. Just gather a handful of the blossoms and a few of just closing pod heads. These will be filled with greenish (turning to purple ) “fruits” which smell and taste amazing, like carrots and coriander, with sweet floral top notes rolled in. And they make an amazing jelly! I love this scent so much I’m currently trying to make an infused body oil with it. For this recipe, mince the blossoms and grind the seeds a bit with a mortar and pestle, then toss right into the batter.
One BIG note of caution, Queen Anne Lace can sometimes be mistaken for poisonous hemlock. So unless you’re a foraging expert, I don’t recommend harvesting unless you spot the telltale drop of black at the centre of her umbel. Not all Queen Anne Lace have them (and they can vary in colour) but just to be safe and sure, harvest only those that do. Another difference is that her stalks sport tiny white hairs while hemlocks are smooth. Also, the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace can be used as an abortifacient so are not recommended for those that are pregnant or trying to conceive!
The cake itself is also delightfully simple to make. All the ingredients are just mixed in one bowl and poured into a baking cake. How easy is that?
Apple Pear Cake w/Queen Anne Lace
- 2 cups Emmer Wheat flour (or just regular)
- 1⁄2 cup honey
- 1tablespoon baking powder
- 1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cardamom
- 1 tsp of grated lemon zest
- 1 cup milk
- 3 medium apples, chopped and cored (peeled is up to you)
- 3 medium pears, chopped and cored
- 2 tablespoons crushed Queen Anne Lace fruits
- 3 tablespoons minced blossoms
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons powdered sugar, for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Grease a 9 x 13 cake tin.
- Place dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together.
- Add milk and stir.
- Add your blossoms and fruits, stir thoroughly.
- Pour into prepared 9 x 13 baking dish.
- Sprinkle brown sugar on top.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
- Let cool then dust with powdered sugar. Or not!
A video on the Roman Festival of Nemoralia – or Diana’s Feast of the Torches.