In May, when flowers bloom all over France, strawberries overtake outdoor markets and fill me with bittersweet memories.
Here in Paris, flashy red strawberries abound on fruit stands everywhere and occupy them for weeks on end. They come in many varieties, with lovely names like Charlotte, Anaïs, Cléry, Gariguette or the intriguing Mara des bois (Mara of the woods).
I have a soft spot for the Gariguette, a longish berry that is as fragrant as wild strawberries. I admit I like it because it was my older brother's favorite.
My brother Bertrand died five years ago this month, at the height of strawberry season. Now, every time I rinse strawberries before eating them, I hear his voice telling me, "Use lukewarm water. It'll clean them better."
Bertrand was an artist, a craftsman, a dreamer and a foodie, the kind who would walk deep into Paris' Chinatown to get the right fish and the right fruit, all at bargain prices.
He was a one-of-a-kind cook. He would toil away in the kitchen for hours, meticulously creating wholesome meals for friends and family waiting impatiently with growling stomachs. Meat would be sliced just so — deboned, deveined and defatted; vegetables would be coated with crushed garlic, herbs, coriander or thyme; and fruit salads would be dressed with some flavor he had concocted. He was the master of our family's feasts.
In Bertrand's kitchen, strawberries would be halved lengthwise and macerated in sugar and orange blossom water, a simple and delicate dessert everyone in my family remembers fondly. I prepare them the same way, too.
In the spring of 2012, I flew from Boston, where I lived then, to visit Bertrand in Paris. At the age of 59, he was losing his battle with stomach cancer. He knew he was dying. He told me so, calmly.
But at a time when he could no longer ingest any solid food, he still found the strength and willpower to make chicken stew with vegetables for me and for his then-22-year-old son, Arthur. He carved ripe mangoes and tossed sliced strawberries in his special sweet dressing. He watched me eat his meal — as if my enjoyment could feed him vicariously.
During his last days, in a Paris hospital, I asked him what he'd like me to bring him. He was being kept alive by IV fluids. "Nothing," he said, "though I wouldn't mind tasting a couple of Gariguettes."
It felt good that he had requested something to taste, especially his beloved strawberries. It was as if he had hope, and I could have some, too.
I returned the next day with a box of the fruit, but Bertrand was in a fog by then — mentally absent and in a lot of pain. He thanked me for the strawberries and said he would try them later, but he never did. He died later that evening.
Arthur and close relatives came to the hospital. At dawn, after an impromptu wake, my sister Bénédicte and I left the hospital with some of Bertrand's things the nursing staff had handed to us. In the taxi taking me home, I found the box of Gariguettes in a bag. They were bruised, but I ate them as tears ran down my cheeks.
Bertrand's funeral a few days later mirrored his personality: eccentric, funny, sad and completely irreverent. It also reflected his love for cooking. At one point in the ceremony, nieces and nephews read out loud — through giggles and tears — his signature recipes, including his roast leg of lamb, his chicken breasts grilled in butter sauce with macaroni, and his signature strawberry dessert.
The tribute continued at a nearby theater lounge where our family and a large gathering of friends shared stories about Bertrand over good wines, bread and rillettes (a charcuterie spread, previously defatted of course) and large bowls of Gariguettes. Bertrand would have approved.
To me, May will forever be the month of my brother's passing. It's also the most vibrant time of spring, when brightly colored flowers and fruit pop up everywhere. And so, I take solace in the fact that each May, the perky Gariguettes return as a vivid celebration of my brother's endless love for food and life.