"I used to think it was a shame that we've lost the wolves and bandits and stuff that used to dwell in the forests but actually, you still find the fringes of society in the woods."
I'm trekking through deepest, darkest Hertfordshire with George Fredenham and Richard Osmond, a.k.a. The Foragers. We've come in search of mugwort, a perennial herb and "wild high." Bereft of our quarry, the conversation has taken a rather bleaker tone and I've started asking the pair the weirdest things they've ever found in amongst the trees, edible or otherwise.
"I once found a pair of Penelope Pitstop underpants," Osmond says. "They had clearly been stained by an adult human male."
I steer the conversation back towards mugwort.
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Chances are, you've heard of the herb known as "artemisia vulgaris" before—it's by no means an uncommon plant. It is however, one that rarely graces the dinner tables of the British Isles, despite its use throughout Japanese cuisine (where it's called yomogi) and closer to home, as a seasoning in the traditional roast goose served on St. Martin's Day in Germany.
Not that a lack of culinary tradition deters The Foragers. First and foremost, they're all about the food: from windfall apples to feral muntjac deer, served at their self-proclaimed "wild food pub," The Verulam Arms in nearby St. Albans.
But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a folkloric element to their dishes. As we forage the woodland, everything has a story to tell—and one that can often be translated through flavour.
We find a broken tree, defeated by the recent weather storms tearing through England. Osmond caresses its pale yellow innards and licks the sap from his fingers. I do the same. It's sweet and lingering.
We stumble upon some wood sorrel peeking through the wet grass. Osmond tells us wood sorrel was often known as "Alleluia" because it typically flowers between Easter and Pentecost. We taste it—it has a lemony zing—and take a few blades to stick on the mugwort fish dish Fredenham will be cooking later.
We talk about the time Osmond fashioned paper from a particularly fibrous species of mushroom or when Fredenham made a beef burger devised from a Roman recipe with pickled green peppercorns and hogweed seeds.
Folklore and flavour is at the centre of everything the pair do.
Osmond believes ritual and folklore, in terms of herbs, is a leftover from the way old civilisations would memorise plants in order to teach the new generation how to recognise them. The pair take this ethos into their dishes.
"If you give people stories and experiences, then they're immediately drawn back to when they see the plant in the wild. It's a way of instantly preserving the knowledge of what's good to eat, what's poisonous, what's medicine, and that kind of thing," Osmond says. "We use folklore to make more of a story for our customers—and the more exciting you can make a story, the better the food tastes."
It's this symbiotic relationship that makes the pair the ideal fit for exploring not only the druggy potential of a wild high like mugwort, but also the culinary one too—and they wouldn't have it any other way. The pair's foraging ethos sits between the Bear Grylls-style of wild food ("forcing yourself to eat something that tastes horrible") and the "hipsterized" trend to add a foraged element as a garnish, rather than incorporating it into the dish itself. The Foragers only play around with stuff that tastes good—that's the first box to tick.
Eventually we find mugwort but it's a dead plant (mugwort grows in the summer, matures in the autumn, and then starts to die off in winter, Osmond explains).
"We can still have this though," he says, snapping off a handful. "It's good to have the dried buds for smoking purposes."
Back at the pub, Osmond extols the virtues of mugwort. He's a walking encyclopaedia of folk medicine and herbal knowledge, and I soon learn that mugwort is one of the nine sacred herbs of Anglo-Saxon England, a member of the artemisia family, and a close relative of wormwood—the "flavouring agent" of absinthe.
In fact, the two artemisias share the same property: the inducement of weird and vivid dreams. We're trying to get as much of it into our bodies as possible in order to achieve exactly that: bedtime visions.
While Osmond goes off to pour us some Foragers' Absinthe (their homemade cold-brew flavoured with wild wormwood, fennel, and sweet cicely and sweetened with a sweet woodruff syrup with extra mugwort), Fredenham shows me how wild highs can taste good even to people who aren't so into "the crazy shaman" stuff.
He's preparing a fillet of sea bass with new potatoes, fennel, tomato concassé, red onion, garlic, and parasol mushroom butter, all wrapped up in foil with a dash of absinthe and a few thick sprigs of dried mugwort to boot.
"A lot of Southern French [cuisine] uses anise—Pernod or pastis—flavour that marries up well with fish, especially white fish," Fredenham says. "We're using mugwort in a similar way to get those bitter notes."
The dish is topped off with a creamy sauce—cooked on an open fire—of onion, bay, the juices of the fish and, of course, more mugwort-rich absinthe. We also add few of the wood sorrel leaves picked earlier.
We tuck in. Considering it's a dish made in the backyard of a pub on a picnic table and an open fire, it looks surprisingly good—and the taste is similarly bewildering. It's a creamy, decadent affair, with the unctuous fish swimming in a herby bitterness of mugwort, tickled with the sweetness of the tomato. I can see why the dish was a hit when it was on the menu in 2014.
Osmond has since returned with two large batons—one of dried mugwort and one of dried wormwood. As he clasps them, it's as though he's holding a baby alligator. He then produces a blowtorch and announces that we'll be smoking both bushes.
Soon enough, we're chasing the mystic wreaths of smoke with small lute-like pipes (made from hemlock stems), and sucking down its harshness in an act which reminds me of toking on hot knives as a teenager.
We have to work for our hits but once you get them, the feeling is rather like smoking grass and I'm soon enveloped in a softening haze, transported back to a time before skunk and industrial-sized hydroponics—when I could answer my phone while having a doobie and not stare at the flashing "Unknown number" like I was witnessing a zoo attack.
"Mugwort was known as 'sailors' tobacco' because often, sailors would just pull up on a piece of coast and use this instead. It's really good for reviving travellers, too. If you're going on a long journey, put some mugwort in your shoes," Osmond says, the ribbons of smoke laced about his face giving his words even more of a druidic quality than normal. "And in more modern times, Gwyneth Paltrow has mugwort-infused water steamed into her vagina."
The laughter brings attention from the pub—punters quizzically staring out of the back windows at a drizzly backyard eclipsed in smoke.
We move on to the absinthe, a popular tipple amongst the locals, who drink a shot in place of Jägermeister, itself "a really folksy thing that's just been marketed as something clearly different."
Similar to the fish, it's decadent, sweet, and bitter. If anything is going to give me vivid dreams, it's this.
"There's a culture of saying that the people who drink absinthe all the time get visions, but we don't really know why. My theory is that the thujone that can cause fits or seizures can also cause disturbed sleep," Osmond explains. "I think it's the fact that the people who have a problem with sleepwalking or night terrors often get provoked into that cycle by something that disturbed their sleep, like grinding their teeth or a noise. My theory is that there might be something in this that keeps you in a shallower level of sleep."
That night before bed, I dip my own toes into the watery mythology of the green fairy or la fée verte. Apparently, Verlaine shot Rimbaud when he was drunk on absinthe and some say Van Gogh dispatched with his ear while under the influence. We all know what Mary Shelley created thanks to a vision during a waking dream attributed to a night of ghost stories around the fire, opium pipes, and absinthe.
The following morning, dream diaries are exchanged. Hearts have been punched out of bodies with cigarette-shaped spikes; there have been Inception-style meta imaginings and red water speaking of conquered fears.
My own "vision" was rather more embarrassing. The mugwort had certainly made me stoned and I did indeed experience a "shallower level" of sleep, but certainly no Frankenstein moment of inspiration.
Instead, I dreamt I was floating at the whim of the elements. Looking down, I realised I was approaching a gigantic porcelain panda, ducking down beneath the clouds and heading straight for … Well, let's just say I was glad I woke up.
Some visions, so it seems, are better off left unseen.