This is the notorious aphrodisiac Spanish Fly, actually a beautiful metallic emerald blister beetle and not a fly at all. Spanish Fly belong to the Oil Beetle family, Meloidae, and are related to the Violet Oil Beetle that I wrote about a few months ago in Big Black Beautiful Beetles. The scientific name is Lytta vesicatoria and in French it is la mouche d'espagne.
Like all oil and blister beetles, it contains a highly irritant poison called cantharidin, which can be extracted from the beetles by simply grinding them up. The ingestion of minute quantities of cantharidin causes priapism, hence its reputation as an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, ever so slightly more than minute quantities cause permanent kidney damage or death. Today, products marketed as 'Spanish Fly' are either banned, or contain another irritant such as the relatively harmless cayenne pepper, which does not induce the immediate and pronounced blisters that contact with cantharidin would. (If you come across a beetle like this, don't touch it! This one was photographed by my mother in the grounds of the Château de la Celle Guenand in June.)
The Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout, which is very popular in France, once sometimes contained Spanish Fly along with the somewhat tastier cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, chilli, paprika, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, pepper and turmeric. I make up my own ras el hanout, and I don't think it is any the worse for the lack of Spanish Fly. The spice mix has a great affinity with cauliflower, making it so delicious that even cauliphobes will eat with gusto.
Here is my recipe:
Mix together the following spices and store in a sealed jar
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon hot chilli powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon lapsang souchong tea, ground to a fine powder