W HILE they were talking about insects and flowers, time had slipped by until the Sunday arrived when Uncle Paul was to tell about mushrooms. The gathering was larger than the first time. The story of poisonous plants had been repeated in the village. Some people in a rut, content with their stupid ignorance, had said: "What is the use of it?" "The use!" replied the others; "it teaches one to beware of poisonous plants, so as not to die miserably like poor Joseph." But those in the rut had tossed their heads with a satisfied air. Nothing is so sufficient unto itself as folly. So only willing listeners came to Uncle Paul.
"Of all poisonous plants, my friends," he began, "mushrooms are the most formidable; and yet some furnish a delightful food capable of tempting the soberest."
"For my part," observed Simon, "I acknowledge, nothing is equal to a dish of mushrooms."
"Nobody will accuse you of gluttony, for, as I have just said, mushrooms can tempt the soberest. I do not wish to discourage their use. I know too well what a resource they are in the country; I simply propose to put you on your guard against the poisonous kinds."
"You are going to teach us to distinguish the good from the bad?" asked Mathieu.
"No; that is impossible for us."
"How impossible? Everybody knows that you can eat without fear mushrooms that grow at the foot of such and such a tree."
"Before answering that remark, I will address myself to you all and ask: Have you confidence in my word? Do you think that passing one's life in studying such things is more instructive than the hear-say of those who do not concern themselves with these matters?"
"You may speak, Maître Paul: we all have full confidence in your learning," Simon made answer for the company.
"Well, then, I repeat it in all conviction: it is impossible for us who are not specialists to distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one, for none has a mark to say: This is eatable and this is not. Neither the nature of the ground, nor the trees at the foot of which they grow, nor their form, color, taste, smell, can teach us anything or enable us to distinguish at sight the harmless from the poisonous. I admit that a person who had passed long years studying mushrooms with the minute attention of a scientist would succeed in distinguishing pretty well the poisonous from the harmless, just as one acquires a knowledge of any other plant; but can we undertake such studies? Have we the time? We scarcely know a dozen weeds, and yet we would presume to pass judgment on the properties of mushrooms, so many in kind and resembling one another so closely?
"I hasten to add that, in every locality, actual use has long since taught the people some kinds that they can eat without danger.
It is a good thing to conform to this usage, which makes us profit by other people's experience—on condition, be it understood, that we acquaint ourselves with the kinds used. But that is not enough to keep us safe from all peril. It is so easy to make a mistake! And then, go to another place and you will come across other mushrooms which, while apparently of the same family as those you have known as eatable, will be dangerous. My rule of conduct is, you see, absolute: you must beware of all mushrooms; excess of prudence is necessary here."
"I admit with you," said Simon, "that it is impossible for us to distinguish at sight the eatable from the poisonous kinds; but there are ways of deciding the question."
"Tell us how."
"In the autumn we cut mushrooms in slices and dry them in the sun. They are excellent food for winter. The poisonous mushrooms rot without drying. The good ones keep."
"Wrong. All mushrooms, good or bad indifferently, keep or spoil according to their more or less advanced state and according to the weather at the time of preparation. This characteristic is of no value whatever."
"Worms attack good mushrooms," Antoine here interposed; "they do not attack bad ones, because they poison them."
"That characteristic is no better than the other one. Worms attack all old mushrooms, bad as well as good; for what would be death to us is harmless to them. Their stomach is made so that they can eat poison with impunity. Certain insects eat aconite, digitalis, belladonna; they feast on what would kill us."
"They say," remarked Jean, "that a piece of silver put in the pot when the mushrooms are cooking turns black if they are poisonous, and remains white if they are good."
"The saying is a foolish one, and to put it in practice a folly. Silver does not change color any more from bad than from good mushrooms."
"There is nothing to do, then, but give up mushrooms. That would be hard on me," said Simon.
"No, no; I promise you, on the contrary, that you will be able to use them more than you have done. The only thing is to proceed advisedly.
"What is poisonous in mushrooms is not the flesh, but the juice with which it is impregnated. Get rid of that juice, and the injurious properties will disappear immediately. This is accomplished by slicing and cooking the mushrooms, either dried or fresh, in boiling water with a handful of salt. They are then drained in a colander and washed two or three times in cold water. That done, they are prepared in any way one chooses.
"If, on the contrary, mushrooms are prepared without having first been cooked in boiling water, we expose ourselves to the danger of a poisonous juice.
"The cooking in boiling water to which salt has been added is so efficacious that, in order to solve this serious problem, certain persons have had the courage to eat for whole months the most poisonous mushrooms, prepared, however, in the way I have just told you."
"And what happened to them?" asked Simon.
"Nothing at all. It is true that these persons prepared their poisonous mushrooms with the most scrupulous care."
"There was reason for it. According to you, then, one could use all mushrooms without distinction?"
"Strictly speaking, yes. But that would be going too far, much too far. There would be the fear of incomplete preparation, insufficient cooking. I only affirm that you must submit mushrooms of good repute in the neighborhood to the preliminary cooking in boiling water. If, by chance, some poisonous ones were included, the poison would in this way be eliminated and no accident would happen; I would bet my hand on that."
"What you have just taught us, Maître Paul, will be profited by, you may be sure. Are we ever quite certain that there is nothing poisonous in what we gather?"
Before saying good-by Simon approached Mother Ambroisine and entered with her into more circumstantial details of the cooking. He is so fond of mushrooms, the worthy man!