Fanfare for a Common Fungus: The "Trumpet of Death"

Depending on the region, June heralds the arrival of a coal-black mushroom known variously as the “trumpet of death,” the “horn of plenty” or “black chanterelles.” The fruiting bodies of this mushroom encircle oaks and tend to bunch under rhododendrons, proliferating seemingly overnight and disappearing usually within a week.

In his 1908 guide The Mushroom, Edible and Otherwise, American mycologist Miron Elisha Hard offers a sense of the trumpet of death’s distinctive morphology. “[N]o one one will have any trouble in recognizing the species,” he writes, “having once seen its picture and read its description.” Unmistakeable are its “elongated or trumpet-shaped cap, and … dingy-gray or sooty-brown hue.” Though this coloration may not whet the casual onlooker’s appetite, the mushroom’s flavor, once sampled, is sure to. The trumpet of death “proves a favorite whenever tested,” Hard assures readers, “and may be dried and kept for future use.”

British mycologist Mrs. Thomas June Hussey voices her concurrence with the impressions of her American colleague, writing that “La Trombetta di morte” (Italian for Trumpet of Death) is a “very peculiar and elegant fungus” that despite its appearance makes for delicious eating. She recounts how one convert to “the wisdom of Mycology purchased half a bushel in Covent Garden … to convert into ketchup,” a culinary experiment that at a mere two shillings “was cheap enough” to justify the effort — though “for the poor woodland denizens so ruthlessly torn from their habitat and crammed into a hamper” a heavy toll, indeed. Despite its low cost, the experiment involving these displaced denizens was a failure: “Ketchup, we need scarcely say, they did not afford.”

Though perhaps an unfit condiment, the trumpet of death makes a terrific garnish for beef, chicken and pasta dishes of all kinds, and pizzas gain added pizazz when topped with it. The mushroom can even improve beverages served with meals; a single black chanterelle, it is said, can make a bottle of rotgut white wine taste like the rarest vintage.

Though difficult to spot, the trumpet of death occurs commonly enough to reward any patient search with bounty. Almost any park or patch of open woodland is certain to harbor it, and it is a great “starter” mushroom for beginning mycologists. No other mushroom resembles the trumpet of death, which means that a dinner featuring them won’t result in, well, death.

Fungus-curious individuals interested in sampling the trumpet of death should try this recipe for a mushroom ragoût from William Hamilton Gibson’s 1895 field guide, Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How To Distinguish Them. It can be poured on pasta or, as the recipe suggests, toasted bread.

Mushroom Ragoût

“Put into a stewpan a little stock, a small quantity of vinegar, parsley and green onions chopped up, salt, and spices. When this is about to boil, the mushrooms being cleaned, put them in. When done remove them from the fire and thicken with yolks of eggs.” — Worthington Smith. Another recommends that the stew should be poured upon toast, or upon crusts of bread previously fried in butter.

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