Candy Caps, Hedgehogs, and Black Chanterelles: Mushroom Hunting on the Sonoma Coast

I can still remember my first bite of a wild Black Trumpet mushroom: rich and dark, almost chocolaty, the mushroom tasted like wilderness.  A friend of my husband’s had foraged for them in the mountains, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.  Fast forward a few years, and my amazing friend Bobbi keeps trying to get me to go out mushroom hunting with her, but either the weather or our schedules keep getting in the way.  Finally, yesterday the stars aligned and we were able to go out in search of the last of this year’s wild mushroom crop.

There are only a few places on the Sonoma Coast where mushroom foraging is both plentiful and legal.  We drove about an hour north of Bodega Bay to Salt Point State park, over winding mountain roads with precipitous drops to the ocean.  Once there, we loaded up our gear: a large basket, brown lunch sacks to separate varieties, and a pastry brush for field cleaning.  Then we started hiking into the forest up a gentle incline lined with spring wildflowers and a mix of tan oak and pines, ideal mushroom habitat.

We found our first mushrooms just a few minutes along the trail.  Positive mushroom identification is essential if you don’t want to end up losing your lunch, or worse; Bobbi knew what to look for, but we cross-checked with this field guide just to be on the safe side:


This guide is as essential as it is wacky.


Our first find was a rosy Russula — beautiful, but not food.  We decided to stray off the path for better luck, and Bobbi soon spotted a few yellow-footed chanterelles hiding under a clump of ferns that had been completely invisible to me.  The mushroom season in Northern California lasts as long as the rains, and this year has been especially dry, meaning thin pickings which had already been heavily foraged by other mushroom hunters.  But we kept on in search of more delicious mushrooms!

After several sightings of non-edible varieties, Bobbi spotted a small patch of Candy Caps.  These small, reddish-orange mushrooms are named for their sweet, maple-syrup fragrance.  Once I knew what color to look for, as well as their distinctive scent, I started seeing Candy Caps everywhere!  Our little lunch sack started filling up quickly with sweet-smelling mushrooms.

The chanterelles, meanwhile, were more elusive.  We found a few clumps of small yellow-footed chanterelles, but the real prize, the black trumpets, seemed to have all but disappeared.  Just as we were about to turn back, Bobbi spotted a few growing in a mossy clearing, and once I knew to look for the distinctive trumpet shape, I found a few, as well.  Mushroom hunting requires sharp eyes and lots of patience!

Once back at the trailhead, we reveled in our haul, relatively small but good considering the season is drawing to a close.  I was especially excited to experiment with the Candy Caps with their unique smoky-sweet flavor!

From Left to Right: Black Chanterelles, Yellow-footed Chanterelles, and Candy Caps

From Left to Right: Black Chanterelles, Yellow-footed Chanterelles, and Candy Caps

All the way home, I pondered what to do with our collection: the chanterelles would go in an amazing pasta dish my husband makes with Italian sausage and a cream sauce.  But what to do with the sweet Candy Caps — cookies, pancakes, or a savory dish?

Back home, we carefully washed and inspected the mushrooms for travelers (bugs) and then dried them in the oven (the flavor is supposedly intensified by drying).  The amazing maple-bacon aroma that filled the house made up for the fact that the total quantity shrunk down considerably while drying.

Candy Caps

Candy Caps ready to dry in the oven

After a brief search, I decided to go for a Humphry Slocombe-inspired Candy Cap Ice Cream.  I found the original recipe here, but combined it with a simplified non-custard-based recipe found here.  The result: a sweet-savory blend, closer to toffee than maple, with a distinct earthiness that is the only hint that the flavor began with an unusual ingredient for ice cream — mushrooms!

Meanwhile, the whole house still smells like maple syrup, and I can’t wait to try out the remaining Candy Caps in other recipes.  And I am actually hoping for rain so we can go out mushroom foraging once again!

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