Umami hounds looking to plump up a meatless Monday often turn to mushrooms to bring the glutamates to the plate. The wild Black Trumpet mushroom -- trumpets des morts for the French (this becomes relevant in a minute) -- is the umami-est of them all, bringing smoke, earth and fruit all in one snappy bite. It's this flavor and nearly black color that earns it another name, the poor man's truffle, a distinction that makes it hugely popular in France, where the bulk of America's foraged Black Trumpet harvests end up.
Watchful wanderers will find the Black Trumpet in California in the leaf litter surrounding oak trees in coastal Mendocino County. The oak and the fungi, a cousin of the Chanterelles (Craterellus vs. Cantharellus, genus-ly speaking) have a symbiotic relationship, the oak providing much-needed sugars to the mushroom and the mushroom helping the oak utilize otherwise unavailable minerals in the soil. Choosing a reputable mushroom harvester -- one who preferably doesn't overharvest or rip up the mycelium underneath -- is crucial if we want to continue to see good harvests in our own markets and maintain a healthy soil system for our majestic oaks. Clearwater Farms relies on tight relationships with savvy and sunstainable pickers in Northern California and Oregon, and you can find them (and their mushrooms) in Santa Monica on Wednesdays and Hollywood on Sundays.
"It's my favorite wild mushroom," says Karl Oldnettle, Clearwater's vendor at the Hollywood market. "It suffers a bit, though. It's ugly. And people aren't accustomed to a really dark mushroom that doesn't have a uniform shape."
In fact, trying to find a few truly trumpet-shaped mushrooms -- they're hollow from stem to fluted edge -- proves to be difficult. They're on the delicate side, with thin, frayable flesh that doesn't travel well. Luckily, the shape is entirely pointless. What they lack in beauty, they make up for in preservability: They dry exceedingly well, unlike the super moist and solid chanterelles, extending their usable shelf life and shriveling up, trumpet shape or no, into knotted black lumps. Reconstitute them in water or wine prior to cooking. If you're using them fresh, simply tear them into short black ribbons to ensure even cooking. Take the truffle nickname to heart and pair them accordingly. We suggest eggs.
Oldnettle says, weather permitting, he'll have the Black Trumpets well into March. But that's only if things stay chilly up north. If our "winter" weather down here creeps up the coastline, expect a shorter season. The best availability, though, is right now. The specimens are large and fleshy, with an intoxicating loamy apricot aroma. Supply and demand sends most of the finer specimens overseas. Their reputation among the best of the wild harvests will hopefully grow and keep some of them stateside in the coming years.