Mushrooms … and grains: friends vs. Enemies

There is a group of unicellular fungal species that has a very important role for human consumption: these are the yeasts. As soon as these mushrooms are found in the absence of oxygen, they begin to transform the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thus these mushrooms are able to procure energy even in the absence of oxygen and man can obtain alcoholic beverages and among these, in particular the beer, but also wine.

Even the Sumerians over 6000 years ago, took advantage of the mushrooms to make beer. Half a millennium later the Assyrians learned to ferment the grape juice to turn into wine. More or less in the same period, around 3500 BC, the Egyptians began to use the process of spontaneous fermentation of the dough of flour left in the air making a softer and fragrant bread.

But the relationship between grains and mushrooms, it is not always idyllic for human. The “segnale cornuta” or ergot, shows how tenuous is the boundary between intoxicants or drugs and poisonous substances. Ergot is the common name given to an ascomiceta called Claviceps purpurea parasite of grasses and rye in particular, hence the name “ergot”. This species is the most studied and known for its important effects in the contamination of packaged foods with cereals attacked by this fungus, with serious effects on humans and animals, which eat it. These alkaloids, being a vaso-constrictors, endanger the circulation and interact with the central nervous system, in particular by acting on serotonin receptors. In fact, people who consumed bread made with flour signal contaminated by this fungus parasite, in the past went against terrible consequences, because of the disease known as Ergotism, terrible disease known in the Middle Ages as the focus of S. Antonio, the sacred fire or burning of bad. Under this term was also included the ‘herpes zoster, which in some symptoms coincided with the effects of ergot poisoning. The ergotism was often fatal and always had a devastating effect on the communities that were affected. This disease could occur in two forms: “Ergotismus convulsivus” characterized by symptoms of neuro-convulsion nature and epileptic, or “Ergotismus gangraenosus” characterized by gangrene at the ends until their mummification. Among the effects of this poisoning were even hallucinations. This led people to relate the disease with the devil or with evil forces, it is not known at the time the cause of these changes. For example, some scholars are inclined to believe that behind the phenomena of witchcraft recorded at the end of the seventeenth-century in Salem in the U.S., there was a food consumption of ergot, whose alkaloids are also resistant to high temperatures of the ovens baking bread.  One possible hypothesis about the name “fuoco di St. Antonio” come out from Northern Europe, where the bread was made with rye and this disease was often contracted due to the fungus that infected rye. The sick, going on pilgrimage to the shrines of St. Anthony in Italy, as they descended towards the south they changed food eating wheat bread, and this attenuated or eliminated symptoms of intoxication. This effect was attributed to a miracle by St. Anthony. Recent researches have questioned this first hypothesis. In Southern Italian regions most popular grains for domestic consumption were rye (Secale cereale and before the second millennium Secale strictum), barley and other grains, especially in Basilicata, Calabria and inland areas of Sicily and Puglia. The grain was exported and was for the table of landowners. Medical, veterinary and agricultural documents attest to the presence of ergotism between the poor and marginalized rural communities, there are many traces of the disease in folklore and popular religion. The Antoniano Order, deputy to the care of “epidemics”, is tested with a notable and capillary increase in whole south Italian since the thirteenth century. Between the eleventh and fifteenth century this dreaded disease caused by some estimates the deaths of 100 000 people across Europe. It can be assumed that no other fungus, in human history, has claimed so many victims. Today, strict control of flours prevents the recurrence of such cases; not infrequent instead is the case of poisoning by animals, fodders being less controlled.