When was the last time you felt trepidation prior to eating in a restaurant? Not the social anxiety of a first date or dining with your boss, but a soupçon of nervousness about the food itself. I’m at Fraîche, a cosy restaurant in Amsterdam’s hip Jordaan district, where chefs and co-owners Noah Tucker and Tony Joseph are laying on an eight-course psychedelic dinner, $80 (£50) a head, for 25 invited guests. Alhough each course has been carefully tested for taste and potency over the previous few months, it is the first time they have all been combined in one dinner. We are guinea pigs.
Noah Tucker eating a weed vapour-infused raspberry doughnut.
But we’re in safe hands. Tucker, a native New Yorker who relocated to Amsterdam, is a self-professed “highly functional pothead”. He has been cooking since the age of six, and attended culinary school on a US navy scholarship. Joseph is a specialist patissier from London who doesn’t touch drugs. As a longtime resident of Amsterdam, I am au fait with the upcoming cannabis ingredients (though I admit to being flattened by dodgy hash brownies in the past). In addition to three types of hashish and four varieties of bud, there are psychedelic truffles, the kanna and the Syrian rue: herbal novelties I am unfamiliar with. Manas Akdag from Test Lab, the city’s only non-governmental cannabis tester, is in effect our “weed sommelier”, and has advised the chefs which varieties work best with which dishes, explaining the difference between high-altitude Indica hashes from Nepal and Tibet, and low-altitude from Morocco, which weeds have high levels of THCV (fast-acting, short-lasting euphoric high) and other cannab-arcana.
Is this safe? And is it legal? Well, yes and sort of. Amsterdam has a famously laissez-fumer approach to cannabis, but obviously those interested should refer to local laws and exercise personal judgment. It seems that kanna and rue are legal in Amsterdam, as are at least some truffles. Unlike the so-called legal highs coming out of China that have caused so much distress and political brouhaha, none of the herbs are toxic (many have medicinal qualities).
Foie gras and hash jus.
They have been supplied by Azarius, Europe’s largest and oldest online supplier, which started in the 90s, pioneering the sale of magic mushrooms. It offers a veritable psychedelicatessen of traditional “sacred herbs” from around the world, from betel nut to peyote cactus. It tests everything it sells, and the Dutch government analyses all its products, so we know we’re not getting fake herbs, heavy-metal contamination or sprayed-on bathtub “research chemicals”.
After Tucker’s brief introduction, we tuck into the starter, a hamachi “shashimi” with smoked avocado and Red Angel dressing, fermented plum and a bacon and kanna-extract dashi. Red Angel is an Amsterdam-bred cannabis with a unique cannabinoid profile – high in psychoactive THC (15%) and counterbalancing cannabidiol (CBD; also 15%). It is designed to lift us – but not too high so early in the meal. Next up is wild salmon in a crust of toasted hemp seed, salsify with a fennel Syrian rue – intensely bitter, but pleasant here, cut with sweet liquorice. Tucker’s fondness for fish is evident with the third dish: wild bass with lemon vinaigrette and Pineapple Kush cannabis, red grapefruit and chervil, accompanied by individual pillows of weed vapour that don’t get us any higher, but do add to the ambience.
By now, we’ve relaxed and started getting to know our fellow diners – a smattering of grizzled old psychonauts like myself, plus artists and new-media types. No alcohol has been served, but the herbal alternatives are creating a mellow vibe. The Syrian rue has brought on a tingly body high that enhances our anticipation for the centrepiece: braised pork cheeks with psychedelic Hollandia truffles, smoked barley and a BBQ-style glaze that masks the funky truffle taste. Then boudin noir with egg yolk, broccoli, foie gras and hash sauce. I’m losing track: was this with the Tibetan hash or the Moroccan Sunrise?
Hamachi ‘shashimi’ with cannabis dressing.
The truffles kick in and my appetite subsides. It’s not as if the walls are melting, but rare-cooked venison in chocolate/hash sauce? My knife is getting heavy, the chocolate sauce looks weird. I am intensely aware of the feel of flesh in my mouth; it is tasty and I finish, but other plates remain half eaten. Shroomy hilarity reigns, until my table gets its first bailers. First one couple (on a Tinder date!), then another, when the woman suddenly feels tired. Our table has gaps and we’re getting introspective, certainly compared with the raucousness on the other table of friends (we were advised to bring friends, and this is certainly challenging with strangers).
Happily, the mood swings back up with the final courses – raspberry coulis doughnuts infused with cannabis vapour, and a chocolate fondant with hash butter and an avocado and white chocolate ganache. I cycle home, still buzzing, before sleeping soundly; the next day I wake feeling refreshed, not hungover.
What have we eaten? It feels strange to refer to them as “drugs”. All plants are little chemical factories, awash with complex substances that interact with our own neuropeptides, hormones and enzymes. All food has subtle effects on mood, from the vitalising scent of citrus to the mild boost of coffee. Psychedelic dining is not something you want to do every week, but for special occasions? Very much so. It is an exciting new direction for experimental chefs who are interested in taking a gastronomic approach to consciousness.
Pasta with hash puree.
Cannabis (Cannabis sativa)
Needs little introduction. In culinary terms, something of a “nose-to-tail” herb, with leaves, seeds, flowers, concentrates and vapours. Contains dozens of cannabinoids, THC being the main psychoactive ingredient. In different combinations it can promote or inhibit appetite, be calming or energising. Its aromatic terpenes add anything from fruity to pine-y overtones.
Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum)
Succulent herb found in southern Africa, used by pastoralists and hunter-gatherers from prehistoric times. Dried leaves and stems are chewed and the saliva swallowed, or taken as tea, tincture, snuff or smoked.
It tastes a little woody. Main active ingredient: mesembrine, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor with antidepressant effects. Initial boost of energy and mood elevation, decreases anxiety; higher doses can cause euphoria, interpersonal ease and a meditative feeling; classified as an empathogen.
Syrian rue (Peganum harmala)
A perennial plant native to the eastern Mediterranean. Seeds have been used in folk medicine and spiritual practices of many cultures. May be the “soma” mentioned in a number of ancient texts. Its active harmine alkaloids temporarily inhibit the action of monoamine oxidase, slowing the body’s breakdown of tryptamines, thereby strengthening and prolonging the effects of other drugs consumed, especially psilocybin.
Magic truffles (Psilocybe hollandia)
The underground sclerotia of mushrooms, commonly known as Philosopher’s Stones. Raw, they taste a bit like tangy pickled walnuts. When the sale of dry and fresh mushrooms became illegal in the Netherlands in 2008, truffles slid into the market void. A sclerotia is not a mushroom, say mycological experts, and does not contravene the UN drug conventions, add lawyers. Main active ingredient: psilocybin, a tryptamine present in many species of mushroom. Hailed for its antidepressive action, truffles are being touted as “the new medicinal marihuana”.