|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
HE chief constituent of cheese, as we have already seen,
is casein, which is separated from the rest of the milk
by the action of rennet. But casein alone would make
very poor cheese, and therefore it is customary to add
more or less cream to it and thus furnish a cheese of
greater richness and savor. The amount of cream added
determines in general the richness and palatability of
the cheese, and thus innumerable grades and varieties
of this article of food are offered for our selection;
yet they all owe their origin to the one substance,
"Kept too long, as I have told you before, all cheeses,
some earlier, others later, become moldy, first on the
outside, then on the inside, the mold being at the
outset of a yellowish white, afterward blue or
greenish, and finally brick-red. At the same time the
substance of the cheese decays and acquires a repulsive
odor and a flavor so acrid as to make the lips smart.
Henceforth the cheese is nothing but a putrid mass
which must be thrown away. Deterioration is more or
less rapid according to the softness or hardness of the
cheese and its permeability by the air. To make cheese
keep well, therefore, it must be dried thoroughly and
reduced to compactness by strong
 pressure. Certain varieties of Dutch cheese,
remarkable for their durability, are so hard and
compact that sometimes, before they an be eaten, they
have to be broken up with a hammer and softened by
wrapping in linen soaked in white wine. But, hard
though they are, these cheeses are valued for
seasoning, for which purpose they are first reduced to
powder on a grater; and they are also serviceable in
the provisioning of ships for long voyages.
"Mold and decay are not the only enemies of cheese;
there are also certain little creatures, mites and
worms, that invade its substance and establish
themselves there, defiling the cheese by their presence
and gnawing it away, little by little. The cheese
mite, or acarus domesticus, as it is called by
the learned, is a tiny creature hardly visible to the
naked eye, with a body all bristling with stiff hairs
and supported by eight short legs. Burrowing with its
pointed head into the soft cheese, it lives there in
colonies of a membership past counting, protected by
the rind and taking shelter in the crevices. Assembled
in mass, these animalcules look like so much dust,
though on closer inspection it is seen to be animate
dust, moving and swarming, and resolvable into a
prodigious number of extremely small lice. If these
mites are allowed to multiply at their own sweet will,
the cheese gradually crumbles to dust. To ward off
their inroads cheeses should be occasionally scrubbed
with a stiff brush and the shelves holding them washed
with boiling water. Cheese already attacked should
first be well brushed and then rubbed with oil, which
kills the mites. A more
ener-  getic procedure consists in subjected the cheese to the
fumes of burning sulphur in a closed box or chest. The
sulphurous gas kills the animalcules without in the
least impairing the quality of the cheese."
"And what about the worms you spoke of?" asked Claire.
"They are even more to be feared than the mites. What
could be more disgusting than a piece of cheese
promenading, so to speak, across one's plate, borne on
the backs of these horrid creatures?"
"Sometimes they are so numerous," remarked Marie, "that
the substance of the cheese seems changed into vermin.
It must be the decay that turns the cheese into mites
"No, indeed, my child; never in all the world does
decay engender vermin. Cheese-mites and cheese-worms
come from eggs laid by other mites and by the flies
into which the worms are finally changed just as
caterpillars are changed into butterflies."
"Then the vermin that we see swarming in all sorts of
decay does not really come from that decay?"
"Surely not. The decay feeds the vermin, but never
brings it into being. It comes from eggs laid by
various insects, especially by flies that are attracted
from a distance by the smell of decay. Thus
cheese-worms finally turn into flies of various kinds
whose lifetime is spent in the open air, often amid the
flowers. When the time comes for laying their eggs
these flies, guided as they are by the sense of smell,
know very well how to find our supplies of cheese.
There they deposit their eggs, each of which
 becomes a little worm which later turns into a fly."
"How about the worms we find in fruit?" asked Jules.
"Do they come from eggs?"
"Yes, all worms, wherever they may be found, owe their
origin to eggs laid by insects; and never, bear in
mind, are they produced directly by decay. Let me give
you a few examples.
"Who is not familiar with the cherry-worm? The cherry
itself may be of fine appearance, plump, dark purple,
bursting with juice. Just as you are about to put it
to your lips you feel a certain softness near the stem;
and your suspicions are aroused. You open the cherry.
Pah! A disgusting worm swims in the decaying pulp.
That is enough. Those fine cherries tempt you no more.
Well, that worm, if left undisturbed, will turn into a
beautiful black fly, the cherry ortalis, with
diaphanous wings crossed by four dark bands. The
insect lays its eggs on cherries still green, one on
each. No sooner is it hatched than the worm bores a
hole through the pulp and installs itself next to the
stone. This orifice is very small and, more than that,
it soon closes up, so that the fruit inhabited by the
worm looks sound. The worm's presence does not
interfere with the growth and ripening of the cherry, a
fortunate circumstance for the worm, which is thus
allowed to gorge itself with the juicy sweet pulp.
When the cherry is ripe the worm is also fully
developed, after which it leaves the fruit and drops to
the ground, where it digs itself in and waits for the
next May, when it will turn into a fly, lay its eggs on
the young cherries, and die."
 "Now I understand," said Marie, "how the worm gets into
the cherry. I had always supposed it came in some way
from the decaying pulp of the fruit."
"I will next show you," continued Uncle Paul, "a
picture of the insect that in its worm state eats nuts.
It is called the nut-weevil with its long, pointed
beak it pierces a hole in the tender shell of the young
fruit, and at the bottom of this hole, in contact with
the nut-meat, it deposits an egg which in a few days
hatches a tiny worm. As this worm eats but very little
the nut continues to grow and the nut-meat ripens; but
the gnawing goes on. Some time in August the stock of
food comes to an end and the worm-eaten nut falls to
the ground. The weevil itself, its jaws now robust,
bores a round hole in the empty shell and abandons its
early home to burrow into the ground, where its
transformation takes place and the worm becomes a
"I often find," said Emile, "under the hazelnut trees
in the garden, nuts that look all right at first, only
each one has a little hole in it and no meat inside."
"The meat has been devoured by the nut-weevil, and the
round hole is the door by which the creature made its
"Sometimes," said Claire, "when I crack nuts with my
teeth, I bite into something bitter and soft."
 "That," returned her uncle, "is the worm of the
nut-weevil, crushed by your teeth."
"Pah! The nasty thing!" she exclaimed.
"And what about the worms we often find in apples and
pears?" asked Marie.
"Those are what are commonly called apple-worms, or in
learned language, Pralidæ. the moth has
wings in two pairs, the upper being of an ash-gray
marbled crosswise with brown and adorned at the
wing-tips with a large red spot surrounded by a
golden-red band; the lower of a uniform brown. As soon
as the fruit begins to form the insect lays an egg in
the blossom-end of the apple or pear, either fruit
being alike acceptable. The tin worm that hatches out,
no bigger than a hair, bores into the fruit and
establishes itself near the seeds. The little orifice
by which it entered soon heals over so that the apple
or pear appears sound for some time.
"Meanwhile the worm goes on growing in the lap of
plenty. It makes a hole communicating with the
outside, to admit fresh air and insure the ventilation
 essential to the sanitary condition of its abode with
all its encumbrance of rubbish and excrement. By thus
tunnel bored through the pulp of the fruit till the
outside is reached the worm both receives fresh air and
from time to time ejects, in the form of reddish
wormhole-dust, the pulp gnawed and digested. Apples
and pears thus infested do not cease to grow; on the
contrary they mature even earlier than the others, but
it is a sickly maturity, and hastens the fall of the
fruit. The worm in the fallen apple or pear leaves its
domicile by the exit already prepared and withdraws
into a crevice in the tree's bark, or sometimes into
the ground, where it fashions for itself a cocoon of
silk mingled with bits of wood or dead leaves; and the
next year it turns into a moth, at the season that
brings forth the young apples and pears in which are to
be laid the eggs for a new generation of worms."
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