Apart from the fact we do drink tea – oolong sipped out of tiny hand-made pottery cups – this is no ordinary afternoon tea. They are both there in the kitchen to greet me – Jude girlish in sprigged cotton and Michel intense and Gallic – and like my previous visit they are both talking to me at the same time.
Founders of the Seedsavers network – the national organisation dedicated since 1986 to the preservation of local varieties of useful plants – the Fantons never seem to rest; I am surprised at one stage when Michel confesses to the fact they (at 60, surely not) lack the energy they always used to have. They are newly returned from their latest bout of travelling, having covered Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, Hungary, Austria and France, Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire in the UK, and Sabah and Borneo in Malaysia. This wasn’t, either, a cruisey lope through Europe visiting vineyards and taking little trips on barges – this was work work work. This was travelling to document, via film, the food-growing and distribution systems at their various ports of call. It was looking at gardens, visiting country markets, and foraging in forests.
But now Jude has me by the elbow to wheel me outside into the garden. She does not appear interested in my question as to how it fared over a summer of often catastrophic climatic conditions, not least the flooding to which Byron Bay was subjected over Christmas. She almost waves it away, with a vague sweep of her arm which seems to indicate, just look around you! And look around me I do as she guides me through lush beds yielding edible bamboos and peanut trees, betel pepper and curry leaves, Davidson plums and a type of ancient citrus called Wampi, soursops and papaya, strawberry guava and Brazilian cherry. And this for starters only, because now we are at the vegetable beds with their chillis, eggplant, thyme, pumpkins, chokos, tomatoes, capsicum, pigeon pea beans and limas, silverbeet and Brazilian spinach, amaranth and lemongrass, turmeric and ginger and galangal, shallots and eschallots, five types of basil including a Greek type with tiny leaves I never knew existed.
Actually, this is what I am loving about afternoon tea at the Fantons’: this substantial boost to my education. We are back in the gloriously cluttered provincial kitchen whose walk-in pantry I covet, from whose mysterious depths Jude extracts a combination of dried seeds she then proceeds to pan-fry. A wonderful fragrance emerges: this, she tells me as she vigorously pounds them in a mortar, is a curry base. Our oolong tea is refreshed and Michel is bringing out of the refrigerator a spicy Italian salami, some very small radishes
and wrinkled olives. They tell me that their all-time favourite farmers market in the country is the Mount Gravatt one – the vegetables still have soil attached, exclaims Michel – and it is from here our afternoon tea snack has come. He slices the salami and Jude brings bread and there is a brief, pungently European moment I experience before I remember I am in Byron Bay. The conversation has in fact turned to farmers markets: I am curious to know both their opinions on their spiralling popularity. Michel is a little cynical. He thinks they are a good idea ‘but they are for the wealthy’.
Meanwhile Jude has remembered the bamboo shoots she wanted me to try. The Fantons grow 13 species of bamboo and of the three edible types this one has been boiled in copious water to remove cyanic acid and bitterness, the water changed several times and bay leaves and salt added to the last boil. On a plate Jude sets out bamboo thus treated which she has marinated in Greek extra virgin olive oil and soy sauce. It is absolutely gorgeous, the perfect accompaniment to the rest of my oolong tea.