Often when I’m mushroom hunting I take the notion that Mother Nature wants me to put some time in searching before she gives up her secret treasures. I think other mushroom hunters can relate; how often is it that you find what you are looking for right away? Even if you are going back to a spot that you know has been productive before? And of course there is the phenomenon of seeing mushrooms all over the place just after you spot the first one. They were apparently invisible before.
I certainly have no reason to complain about our occupation, even a bad day is usually still a nice walk in the woods. It can be trying though; walking great distances over rough terrain, insects and inclement weather. Particularly when you add weight on the back to any of those factors, since chaga is a rather heavy mushroom, I admit sometimes I will grumble. Sometimes though the worst days end with a great payoff, and you often find something you weren’t even really looking for.
This was the case the other day when I spent a good 5 hours wandering around an area searching for appropriate chaga habitat. The whole region I was in is notable for its higher than average altitude, which is usually not ideal for chaga, but all the oaks, maples and beeches were in full fall display so it compelled me to trudge onward for longer than I normally might.
We had scattered light frost the week before, which generally means the end of any fleshy, terrestrial mushroom. Even so, I kept half an eye to the ground hoping to spot some honey mushrooms that may have been spared winter’s icy foreshadowing. I ultimately found a handful of them too, enough for a meal, but just as I was getting ready to call it a day I decided to climb up a big oak hill to get an idea of an exit route. It was there I found the real prize of the day; one of my top 3 favorite gourmets: Craterellus cornucopioides Black Trumpets!
These inauspicious little treats are notoriously difficult to spot. Most mushrooms are, since they often take the color, shape and size of forest detritus; they blend right in. Black trumpets take it to a new level though: their black color and tendency to grow in black dirt, and their oak leaf like shape in addition to their predilection to growing near oak trees, make them a mushroom that is often over looked.
As I mentioned they are one of my absolute favorite gourmet mushrooms. I can’t get enough of them, figuratively but also literally: I don’t find them to usually grow in large patches. This particular oak hill though was very exceptional. Both in the number of mushrooms which it hosted, which was very generous, and the time of year that I found them; black trumpets are generally considered to be a ‘high summer’ mushroom in our area, and I have only rarely found them even in September. Here I was just a few weeks from Halloween with a bonanza of a patch.
Black trumpets are a favorite of chefs and foragers world-wide, it has a few memorable common names in Europe such as ‘Trumpet of Death’ and ‘Poor Man’s Truffle’. The former is thought to come from their tendency to grow in graveyards, and they do incidentally prefer soil that is high in calcium. Where ever you do find them though, there is likely to be an oak or beech tree nearby. I have always been under the impression that they were a mycorrhizal mushroom(only growing in symbiosis with certain tree species) but they are in fact a saprotropic(recyclers of dead material). Even so, Red Oaks seem to be the only tree I ever find them under in Northern Michigan.
They seem to prefer sandy soil, with at least a thin layer of humus on top. I often find them in mixed Oak and Red Pine forests, on hills and in valleys, and it seems they like a fair amount of sunlight; similar to its cousin the chanterelle. Mid July to early August seems to be the best time to find them, and an area can produce several flushes over the course of months. I will often find them in proximity to another close cousin of theirs Craterellus tubaeformis, the ‘Yellow Foot Chanterelle’. I find this is the best way of hunting them: look for the yellow foots, which are bright and easy to spot, and the scout around from there for the camouflaged blacks.
The flavor of black trumpets is as excellent as it is difficult to describe. It is a light, yet robust flavor, almost fruity or flowery in a manner similar to the chanterelle, and a small handful can be used to flavor a whole dish or pot of soup. Their ‘Poor Man’s Truffle’ moniker is somewhat well deserved, particularly after dehydration they take on more of an earthy, rich, truffle like flavor. They can be prepared in a myriad of ways and will add a unique and hard to ascertain taste to any dish.
So be on the look out if you find yourself wandering some oak woods this fall enjoying the colors. They have a wide distribution and our mushroom season here in Northern Michigan is rather short compared to other places, so they could be found well into fall in some areas. They truly are a delightful gift of the harvest season, so take a look for this little treat that requires you to look closer.