INSECTS AND MUSHROOMS





It were out of place to recall my long relations with the bolete

and the agaric if the insect did not here enter into a question of

grave interest. Several mushrooms are edible, some even enjoy a

great reputation; others are formidable poisons. Short of

botanical studies that are not within everybody's reach, how are we

to distinguish the harmless from the venomous? There is a

widespread belief which says that any mushroom which insects, or,

more frequently, their 1arvae, their grubs, accept can be accepted

without fear; any mushroom which they refuse must be refused. What

is wholesome food for them cannot fail to be the same for us; what

is poisonous to them is bound to be equally baneful to ourselves.

This is how people argue, with apparent logic, but without

reflecting upon the very different capabilities of stomachs in the

matter of diet. After all, may there not be some justification for

the belief? That is what I purpose examining.



The insect, especially in the larval stage, is the principal

devourer of the mushroom. We must distinguish between two groups

of consumers. The first really eat, that is to say, they break

their food into little bits, chew it and reduce it to a mouthful

which is swallowed just as it is; the second drink, after first

turning their food into a broth, like the bluebottles. The first

are the less numerous. Confining myself to the results of my

observations in the neighborhood, I count, all told, in the group

of chewers, four beetles and a moth caterpillar. To these may be

added the mollusk, as represented by a slug, or, more specifically,

an arion, of medium size, brown and adorned with a red edge to his

mantle. A modest corporation, when all is said, but active and

enterprising, especially the moth.



At the head of the mushroom loving beetles, I will place a

Staphylinid (Oxyporus rufus, LIN.), prettily garbed in red, blue

and black. Together with his larva, which walks with the aid of a

crutch at its back, he haunts the fungus of the poplar (Pholiota

aegerita, FRIES). He specializes in an exclusive diet. I often

come across him, both in spring and autumn, and never any elsewhere

than on this mushroom. For that matter, he had made a wise choice,

the epicure! This popular fungus is one of our best mushrooms,

despite its color of a doubtful white, its skin which is often

wrinkled and its gills soiled with rusty brown at the spores. We

must not judge people by appearances, nor mushrooms either. This

one, magnificent in shape and color, is poisonous; that other, so

poor to look at, is excellent.



Here are two more specialist beetles, both of small size. One is

the Triplax (Triplax russica, LIN.), who has an orange head and

corselet and black wing-cases. His grub tackles the hispid

polyporus (Polyporus hispidus, BULL.), a coarse and substantial

dish, bristling at its top with stiff hairs and clinging by its

side to the old trunks of mulberry trees, sometimes also of walnut

and elm trees. The other is the cinnamon-colored Anisotoma

(Anisotoma cinnamomea, PANZ.). His larva lives exclusively in

truffles.



The most interesting of the mushroom-eating beetles is the

Bolboceras (Bolboceras gallicus, MUL.). I have described elsewhere

his manner of living, his little song that sounds like the chirping

of a bird, his perpendicular wells sunk in search of an underground

mushroom (Hydnocystis orenaria, TUL.), which constitutes his

regular nourishment. He is also an ardent lover of truffles. I

have taken from between his legs, at the bottom of his manor house,

a real truffle the size of a hazelnut (Tuber Requienii, TUL.). I

tried to rear him in order to make the acquaintance of his grub; I

housed him in a large earthen pan filled with fresh sand and

enclosed in a bell cover. Possessing neither hydnocistes nor

truffles, I served him up sundry mushrooms of a rather firm

consistency, like those of his choice. He refused them all,

helvellae and clavariae, chanterelles and pezizae alike.



With a rhizopogon, a sort of little fungoid potato, which is

frequent in pine woods at a moderate depth and sometimes even on

the surface, I achieved complete success. I had strewn a handful

of them on the sand of my breeding pan. At nightfall, I often

surprised the Bolboceras issuing from his well, exploring the

stretch of sand, choosing a piece not too big for his strength and

gently rolling it towards his abode. He would go in again, leaving

the rhizopogon, which was too large to take inside, on the

threshold, where it served the purpose of a door. Next day, I

found the piece gnawed, but only on the under side.



The Bolboceras does not like eating in public, in the open air; he

needs the discreet retirement of his crypt. When he fails to find

his food by burrowing under ground, he comes up to look for it on

the surface. Meeting with a morsel to his taste, he takes it home

when its size permits; if not, he leaves it on the threshold of his

burrow and gnaws at it from below, without reappearing outside. Up

to the present, hydnocistes, truffles and rhizopoga are the only

food that I have known him to eat. These three instances tell us

at any rate that the Bolboceras is not a specialist like the

Oxyporus and the Triplax; he is able to vary his diet; perhaps he

feeds on all the underground mushrooms indiscriminately.



The moth enlarges her domain yet further. Her caterpillar is a

grub five or six millimeters long, white, with a black shiny head.

Colonies of it abound in most mushrooms. It attacks by preference

the top of the stem, for epicurean reasons that escape me; thence

it spreads throughout the cap. It is the habitual boarder of the

boletes, agarics, lactarii and russulie. Apart from certain

species and certain groups, everything suits it. This puny grub,

which will spin itself an infinitesimal cocoon of white silk under

the piece attacked and will later become an insignificant moth, is

the primordial ravager.



Let us next mention the arion, that voracious mollusk who also

tackles most mushrooms of some size. He digs himself spacious

niches inside them and there sits blissfully eating. Few in

numbers, compared with the other devourers, he usually sets up

house alone. He has, by way of a set of jaws, a powerful plane

which creates great breaches in the object of his depredations. It

is he whose havoc is most apparent.



Now all these gnawers can be recognized by their leavings, such as

crumbs and worm holes. They dig clean passages, they slash and

crumble without a slimy trail, they are the pinkers. The others,

the liquefiers, are the chemists; they dissolve their food by means

of reagents. All are the grubs of flies and belong to the

commonalty of the Muscidae. Many are their species. To

distinguish them from one another by rearing them in order to

obtain the perfect stage would involve a great expenditure of time

to little profit. We will describe them by the general name of

maggots.



To see them at work, I select, as the field of exploitation, the

satanic bolete (Boletus Satanas, LENZ.), one of the largest

mushrooms that I can gather in my neighborhood. It has a dirty-

white cap; the mouths of the tubes are a bright orange-red; the

stem swells into a bulb with a delicate network of carmine veins.

I divide a perfectly sound specimen into equal parts and place

these in two deep plates, put side by side. One of the halves is

left as it is: it will act as a control, a term of comparison. The

other half receives on the pores of its undersurface a couple of

dozen maggots taken from a second bolete in full process of

decomposition.



The dissolving action of the grub asserts itself on the very day

whereon these preparations are made. The undersurface, originally

a bright red, turns brown and runs in every direction into a mass

of dark stalactites. Soon, the flesh of the cap is attacked and,

in a few days, becomes a gruel similar to liquid asphalt. It is

almost as fluid as water. In this broth the maggots wallow,

wriggling their bodies and, from time to time, sticking the

breathing holes in their sterns above the water. It is an exact

repetition of what the liquefiers of meat, the grubs of the grey

flesh fly and the bluebottle, have lately shown us. As for the

second half of the bolete, the half which I did not colonize with

vermin, it remains compact, the same as it was at the start, except

that its appearance is a little withered by evaporation. The

fluidity, therefore, is really and truly the work of the grubs and

of them alone.



Does this liquefaction imply an easy change? One would think so at

first, on seeing how quickly it is performed by the action of the

grubs. Moreover, certain mushrooms, the coprini, liquefy

spontaneously and turn into a black fluid. One of them bears the

expressive name of the inky mushroom (Coprinus atramentarius,

BULL.) and dissolves into ink of its own accord. The conversion,

in certain cases, is singularly rapid. One day, I was drawing one

of our prettiest coprini (Coprinus sterquilinus, FRIES), which

comes out of a little purse or volva. My work was barely done, a

couple of hours after gathering the fresh mushroom, when the model

had disappeared, leaving nothing but a pool of ink upon the table.

Had I procrastinated ever so little, I should not have had time to

finish and I should have lost a rare and interesting find.



This does not mean that the other mushrooms, especially the

boletes, are of ephemeral duration and lacking in consistency. I

made the attempt with the edible bolete (Boletus edulis, BULL.),

the famous cepe of our kitchens, so highly esteemed for its flavor.

I was wondering whether it would not be possible to obtain from it

a sort of Liebig's extract of fungus, which would be useful in

cooking. With this purpose, I had some of these mushrooms cut into

small pieces and boiled, on the one hand, in plain water and, on

the other, in water with bicarbonate of soda added. The treatment

lasted two whole days. The flesh of the bolete was indomitable.

To attack it, I should have had to employ violent drugs, which were

inadmissible in view of the result to be attained.



What prolonged boiling and the aid of bicarbonate of soda leave

almost intact the fly's grubs quickly turn into fluid, even as the

flesh worms fluidify hard-boiled white of egg. This is done in

each instance without violence, probably by means of a special

pepsin, which is not the same in both cases. The liquefier of meat

has its own brand; the liquefier of the bolete has another sort.

The plate, then, is filled with a dark, running gruel, not unlike

tar in appearance. If we allow evaporation free course, the broth

sets, into a hard, easily crumbled slab, something like toffee.

Caught in this matrix, grubs and pupa perish, incapable of freeing

themselves. Analytical chemistry has proved fatal to them. The

conditions are quite different when the attack is delivered on the

surface of the ground. Gradually absorbed by the soil, the excess

of liquid disappears, leaving the colonists free. In my dishes, it

collects indefinitely, killing the inhabitants when it dries up

into a solid layer.



The purple bolete (Boletus purpureus, FRIES), when subjected to the

action of the maggots, gives the same result as the Satanic bolete,

namely, a black gruel. Note that both mushrooms turn blue if

broken and especially if crushed. With the edible bolete, whose

flesh invariably remains white when cut, the product of its

liquefaction by the vermin is a very pale brown. With the oronge,

or imperial mushroom, the result is a broth which the eye would

take for a thin apricot jam. Tests made with sundry other

mushrooms confirm the rule: all, when attacked by the maggot, turn

into a more or less fluid mess, which varies in color.



Why do the two boletes with the red tubes, the purple bolete and

the satanic bolete, change into a dark gruel? I have an inkling of

the reason. Both of them turn blue, with an admixture of green. A

third species, the bluish bolete (Boletus cyanescens, BULL., var.

lacteus, LEVEILLE), possess remarkable color sensitiveness. Bruise

it ever so lightly, no matter where, on the cap, the stem, the

tubes of the undersurface: forthwith, the wounded part, originally

a pure white, is tinted a beautiful blue. Place this bolete in an

atmosphere of carbonic acid gas. We can now knock it, crush it,

reduce it to pulp; and the blue no longer shows. But extract a

fragment from the crushed mass: immediately, at the first contact

with the air, the matter turns a most glorious blue. It reminds us

of a process employed in dyeing. The indigo of commerce, steeped

in water containing lime and sulfate of iron, or copperas, is

deprived of a part of its oxygen; it loses its color and becomes

soluble in water, as it was in the original indigo plant, before

the treatment which the plant underwent. A colorless liquid

results. Expose a drop of this liquid to the air. Straightway,

oxidization works upon the product: the indigo is reformed,

insoluble and blue.



This is exactly what we see in the boletes that turn blue so

readily. Could they, in fact, contain soluble, colorless indigo?

One would say so, if certain properties did not give grounds for

doubt. When subjected to prolonged exposure to the air, the

boletes that are apt to turn blue, particularly the most

remarkable, Boletus cyanescens, lose their color, instead of

retaining the deep blue which would be a sign of real indigo. Be

this as it may, these mushrooms contain a coloring principle which

is very liable to change under the influence of the air. Why

should we not regard it as the cause of the black tint when the

maggots have liquefied the boletes which turn blue? The others,

those with the white flesh, the edible bolete, for instance, do not

assume this asphalty appearance once they are liquefied by the

grubs.



All the boletes that change to blue when broken have a bad

reputation; the books treat them as dangerous, or at least open to

suspicion. The name of Satanic awarded to one of them is an ample

proof of our fears. The caterpillar and the maggot are of another

opinion: they greedily devour what we hold in dread. Now here is a

strange thing: those passionate devotees of Boletus Satanas

absolutely refuse certain mushrooms which we find delightful

eating, including the most celebrated of all, the oronge, the

imperial mushroom, which the Romans of the empire, past masters in

gluttony, called the food of the gods, cibus deorum, the agaric of

the Caesars, Agaricus caesareus. It is the most elegant of all our

mushrooms. When it prepares to make its appearance by lifting the

fissured earth, it is a handsome ovoid formed by the outer wrapper,

the volva. Then this purse gently tears and the jagged opening

partly reveals a globular object of a magnificent orange. Take a

hen's egg, boil it, remove the shell: what remains will be the

imperial mushroom in its purse. Remove a part of the white at the

top, uncovering a little of the yolk. Then you have the nascent

imperial. The likeness is perfect. And so the people of my part,

struck by the resemblance, call this mushroom lou rousset d'iou,

or, in other words, yolk of egg. Soon, the cap emerges entirely

and spreads into a disk softer than satin to the touch and richer

to the eye than all the fruit of the Hesperides. Appearing amid

the pink heather, it is an entrancing object.



Well, this gorgeous agaric (Amanita caesarea, SCOP.), this food of

the gods the maggot absolutely refuses. My frequent examinations

have never shown me an imperial attacked by the grubs in the field.

It needs imprisonment in a jar and the absence of other victuals to

provoke the attempt; and even then the treacle hardly seems to suit

them. After the liquefaction, the grubs try to make off, showing

that the fare is not to their liking. The Mollusk also, the Arion,

is anything but an ardent consumer. Passing close to an imperial

mushroom and finding nothing better, he stops and takes a bite,

without lingering. If, therefore, we required the evidence of the

insect, or even of the Slug, to know which mushrooms are good to

eat, we should refuse the best of them all. Though respected by

the vermin, the glorious imperial is nevertheless ruined not by

larvae, but by a parasitic fungus, the Mycogone rosea, which

spreads in a purply stain and turns it into a putrid mass. This is

the only despoiler that I know it to possess.



A second amanita, the sheathed amanita (Amanita vaginata, BULL.),

prettily streaked on the edges of the cap, is of an exquisite

flavor, almost equal to the imperial. It is called lou pichot

gris, the grayling, in these parts, because of its coloring, which

is usually an ashen gray. Neither the maggot nor the even more

enterprising Moth ever touches it. They likewise refuse the

mottled amanita (Amanita pantherina, D. C.), the vernal amanita

(Amanita verna, FRIES) and the lemon-yellow amanita (Amanita

citrina, SCHAEFF.), all three of which are poisonous. In short,

whether it be to us a delicious dish or a deadly poison, no amanita

is accepted by the grubs. The arion alone sometimes bites at it.

The cause of the refusal escapes us. It were vain, speaking of the

mottled amanita, for instance, to allege as a reason the presence

of an alkaloid fatal to the grubs, for we should have to ask

ourselves why the imperial, the amanita of the Caesars, which is

wholly free from poison, is rejected no less uncompromisingly than

the venomous species. Could it perhaps be lack of relish, a

deficiency of seasoning for stimulating the appetite? In point of

fact, when eaten raw, the amanitas have no particular flavor.



What shall we learn from the sharper-flavored mushrooms? Here, in

the pinewoods, is the woolly milk mushroom (Lactarius torminosus,

SCHAEFF.), turned in at the edges and wrapped in a curly fleece.

Its taste is biting, worse than Cayenne pepper. Torminosus means

colic producing. The name is very suitable. Unless he possessed a

stomach built for the purpose, the man who touched such food as

this would have a singularly bad time before him. Well, that

stomach the vermin possess: they revel in the pungency of the

woolly milk mushroom even as the spurge caterpillar browses with

delight on the loathsome leaves of the euphorbiae. As for us, we

might as well, in either case, eat live coals.



Is a condiment of this kind necessary to the grubs? Not at all.

Here, in the same pinewoods, is the "delicious" milk mushroom

(Lactarius deliciosus, LIN.), a glorious orange-red crater, adorned

with concentric zones. If bruised, it assumes a verdigris hue,

possibly a variant of the indigo tint peculiar to the blue-turning

boletes. From its flesh laid bare by being broken or cut ooze

blood-red€ drops, a well-defined characteristic peculiar to this

milk mushroom. Here the violent spices of the woolly milk mushroom

disappear; the flesh has a pleasant taste when eaten raw. No

matter: the vermin devour the mild milk mushroom with the same zest

with which they devour the horribly peppered one. To them the

delicate and the strong, the insipid and the peppery are all alike.



The epithet 'delicious' applied to the mushroom whose wound weeps

tears of blood is highly exaggerated. It is edible, no doubt, but

it is coarse eating and difficult to digest. My household refuses

it for cooking purposes. We prefer to put it to soak in vinegar

and afterwards to use it as we might use pickled gherkins. The

real value of this mushroom is largely overrated thanks to a too

laudatory epithet.



Is a certain degree of consistency required, to suit the grubs:

something midway between the softness of the amanitas and the

firmness of the milk mushrooms? Let us begin by questioning the

olive tree agaric or luminous mushroom (Pleurotus phosphoreus,

BATT.), a magnificent mushroom colored jujube red. Its popular

name is not particularly appropriate. True, it frequently grows at

the base of old olive trees, but I also pick it at the foot of the

box, the holm oak, the plum tree, the cypress, the almond tree, the

Guelder rose and other trees and shrubs. It seems fairly

indifferent to the nature of the support. A more remarkable

feature distinguishes it from all the other European mushrooms: it

is phosphorescent. On the lower surface and there only, it sheds a

soft, white gleam, similar to that of the glowworm. It lights up

to celebrate its nuptials and the emission of its spores. There is

no question of chemist's phosphorus here. This is a slow

combustion, a sort of more active respiration than usual. The

luminous emission is extinguished in the unbreathable gases,

nitrogen and carbonic acid; it continues in aerated water; it

ceases in water deprived of its air by boiling. It is exceedingly

faint, however, so much so that it is not perceptible except in the

deepest darkness. At night and even by day, if the eyes have been

prepared for it by a preliminary wait in the darkness of a cellar,

this agaric is a wonderful sight, looking indeed like a piece of

the full moon.



Now what do the vermin do? Are they drawn by this beacon? In no

wise: maggots, caterpillars and slugs never touch the resplendent

mushroom. Let us not be too quick to explain this refusal by the

noxious properties of the olive tree agaric, which is said to be

extremely poisonous. Here, in fact, on the pebbly ground of the

wastelands, is the eryngo agaric (Pleurotus eryngii, D. C.), which

has the same consistency as the other. It is the berigoulo of the

Provencaux, one of the most highly esteemed mushrooms. Well, the

vermin will have none of it: what is a treat to us is detestable to

them.



It is superfluous to continue this method of investigation: the

reply would be everywhere the same. The insect, which feeds on one

sort of mushroom and refuses others, cannot tell us anything about

the kinds that are good or bad for us. Its stomach is not ours.

It pronounces excellent what we find poisonous; it pronounces

poisonous what we think excellent. That being so, when we are

lacking in the botanical knowledge which most of us have neither

time nor inclination to acquire, what course are we to take? The

course is extremely simple.



During the thirty years and more that I have lived at Serignan, I

have never heard of one case of mushroom poisoning, even the

mildest, in the village; and yet there are plenty of mushrooms

eaten here, especially in autumn. Not a family but, when on a walk

in the mountains, gathers a precious addition to its modest

alimentary resources. What do these people gather? A little of

everything. Often, when rambling in the neighboring woods, I

inspect the baskets of the mushroom pickers, who are delighted for

me to look. I see things fit to make mycological experts stand

aghast. I often find the purple bolete, which is classed among the

dangerous varieties. I made the remark one day. The man carrying

the basket stared at me in astonishment: 'That a poison! The wolf's

bread!' he said, patting the plump bolete with his hand. 'What an

idea! It's beef marrow, sir, regular beef marrow!' [Author's note:

People use them indiscriminately for cooking purposes, after

removing the tubes on the under side, which are easily separated

from the rest of the mushroom.]



He smiled at my apprehensions and went away with a poor opinion of

my knowledge in the matter of mushrooms.



In the baskets aforesaid, I find the ringed agaric (Armillaria

mellea, FRIES), which is stigmatized as valde venenatus by Persoon,

an expert on the subject. It is even the mushroom most frequently

made use of, because of its being so plentiful, especially at the

foot of the mulberry trees. I find the Satanic bolete, that

dangerous tempter; the belted milk mushroom (Lactarius zonarius,

BULL.), whose burning flavor rivals the pepper of its woolly

kinsman; the smooth-headed amanita (Amanita leiocophala, D. C.), a

magnificent white dome rising out of an ample volva and fringed at

the edges with floury relics resembling flakes of casein. Its

poisonous smell and soapy aftertaste should lead to suspicion of

this ivory dome; but nobody seems to mind them.



How, with such careless picking, are accidents avoided? In my

village and for a long way around, the rule is to blanch the

mushrooms, that is to say, to bring them to the boil in water with

a little salt in it. A few rinsings in cold water conclude the

treatment. They are then prepared in whatever manner one pleases.

In this way, what might at first be dangerous becomes harmless,

because the preliminary boiling and rinsing have removed the

noxious elements.



My personal experience confirms the efficacy of this rustic method.

At home, we very often make use of the ringed agaric, which is

reputed extremely dangerous. When rendered wholesome by the ordeal

of boiling water, it becomes a dish of which I have naught but good

to say. Then again the smooth-headed amanita frequently appears

upon my table, after being duly boiled: if it were not first

treated in this fashion, it would be hardly safe. I have tried the

blue-turning boletes, especially the purple bolete and the Satanic.

They answered very well to the eulogistic term of beef marrow

applied to them by the mushroom picker who scouted my prudent

counsels. I have sometimes employed the mottled amanita, so ill

famed in the books, without disastrous result. One of my friends,

a doctor, to whom I communicated my ideas about the boiling water

treatment, thought that he would make the experiment on his own

account. He chose the lemon-yellow amanita, which has as bad a

reputation as the mottled variety, and ate it at supper.

Everything went off without the slightest inconvenience. Another,

a blind friend, in whose company I was one day to taste the Cossus

of the Roman epicures, treated himself to the olive tree agaric,

said to he so formidable. The dish was, if not excellent, at least

harmless.



It results from these facts that a good preliminary boiling is the

best safeguard against accidents arising from mushrooms. If the

insect, devouring one species and refusing another, cannot guide us

in any way, at least rustic wisdom, the fruit of long experience,

prescribes a rule of conduct which is both simple and efficacious.

You are tempted by a basketful of mushrooms, but you do not feel

very sure as to their good or evil properties. Then have them

blanched, well and thoroughly blanched. When it leaves the

purgatory of the stewpan, the doubtful mushroom can be eaten

without fear.



But this, you will tell me, is a system of cookery fit for savages:

the treatment with boiling water will reduce the mushrooms to a

mash; it will take away all their flavor and all their succulence.

That is a complete mistake. The mushroom stands the ordeal

exceedingly well. I have described my failure to subdue the cepes

when I was trying to obtain an extract from them. Prolonged

boiling, with the aid of bicarbonate of soda, so far from reducing

them to a mess, left them very nearly intact. The other mushrooms

whose size entitles them to culinary consideration offer the same

degree of resistance. In the second place, there is no loss of

succulence and hardly any of flavor. Moreover, they become much

more digestible, which is a most important condition in a dish

generally so heavy for the stomach. For this reason, it is the

custom, in my family, to treat them one and all with boiling water,

including even the glorious imperial.



I am a Philistine, it is true, a barbarian caring little for the

refinements of cookery. I am not thinking of the epicure, but of

the frugal man, the husbandman especially. I should consider

myself amply repaid for my persistent observations if I succeeded

in popularizing, however little, the wise Provencal recipe for

mushrooms, an excellent food that makes a pleasant change from the

dish of beans or potatoes, when we can overcome the difficulty of

distinguishing between the harmless and the dangerous.




that boiling neutralizes all mushroom poisons.]





INDUSTRIAL CHEMISTRY INSTINCT AND DISCERNMENT facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback