Helping hands

This weekend, my father and I made strawberry jam. It was a healing experience which enabled me to save precious time.


On Saturday, I left home at 6:30am. I knew I had a long day ahead of me, with a couple of uncertainties as to how things would go. I decided to do my weekly shopping at the farmers’ market early. How many people would already queue in front of the entrance, as strict health and safety measures were in place? Fortunately, the local authorities extended the maximum number of customers allowed inside to a hundred, twice as many as last week. I used the hand sanitizing gel provided, put on my mask and moved in straight away at 6:40am. The market was running at almost full capacity already. We could enjoy the company of other customers while respecting social distancing, and buy food from almost every supplier present before the pandemic. It looked just like a normal day.

I found interesting produce. My local delicatessen supplier, who regularly asks for news of my aunt, was selling two kilos of rhubarb from her garden. I bought them. The fruit merchant from Languedoc, three hundred kilometres South, who also enquires about my aunt, had cherries. I bought a kilo and a half of guignes, small sweet and sour cherries to experiment with. I stopped at the fishmonger from the Île d’Oléron, four hundred kilometres West on the Atlantic coast, who had wonderful cod. Finally, my trolley full of food, I headed up to my supplier of local soft fruit. The five kilos of strawberries I had ordered the week before were waiting for me.

A wooden crate of safely-wrapped strawberries

The wooden crate was safely wrapped in plastic film. Photo 23 May 2020, Aurillac, France.

Five kilos of premium strawberries

Five kilos of premium Mara des Bois strawberries. We kept a pack for dessert and made jam with the other 4.5 kilos.

I started the jam after my morning activities, just before noon. My father was around, so I asked him for help. We occasionally snap off the ends of green beans together, but that’s about all of his contribution to home cooking. He came to the kitchen to hull the strawberries with me.

There were particular circumstances. The day before, we were allowed to visit my aunt in her care home, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) provided on site. It was a traumatic experience, as she was not well on that day. Her health is seriously worsening.

My aunt and I used to make jam together. My father was rather reluctant to join in with stoning the plums and the apricots, picking the redcurrants off their stems or sorting the raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. He relied on us and the other members of the family to do it. But now my aunt is away, now that he is older and less active, and because no one else has been in the house during confinement except me, things have changed. He was pleased to lend a hand.

We had a great time. We worked together, talking, making things happen faster. We started at 12:00. I thought it would take half an hour; he felt it was a bit ambitious. We completed the job at 12:35. Then, I went to the garden to take pictures of our achievements in daylight. We had approximately 4.3 kilos of strawberries ready for jam making, enough to produce around eighteen 375g jars.

Helping hands: my father hulling the strawberries

Hulling the strawberries was straightforward, as the stems were easy to remove.

4.3 kilos of strawberries hulled and cut in two, ready for jam making

The largest strawberries were halved.

Strawberry waste after hulling

The fruit, of great quality, had been freshly picked. There was little waste.

Cooking for lunch followed. I picked red radishes in the garden for starters and parsley for the main dish, a loin of cod meunière served with green beans and mashed potatoes prepared the day before. Cantal and Saint Nectaire, our preferred local cheeses, were on the cheese board. We had strawberries with local fresh cream for dessert.

Strawberries and fresh cream

Our Saturday lunch dessert: half the pack of remaining strawberries with a hint of sugar, our favourite fresh cream and a sponge finger biscuit.

The whole experience helped us keep our spirits up. We talked about my aunt. I was supposed to come back and see her in the afternoon. We hoped she would feel better. Actually she did, and we had a wonderful time in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was unable to hear so I couldn’t tell her the strawberry jam story. She did all the talking. The story was there anyway, in my heart and soul. I am sure she felt the energy it had given me.

My aunt is a retired nurse who has never stopped being active and caring for others. ‘A safe pair of hands’, as the British say, at the contact of whom patients feel valued and properly taken care of. She has been mindful of the human condition by heart and profession, and she is as alert as I have ever seen her even as her health deteriorates to the point of no return.

Helping hands: my aunt's 'safe pair of hands'

My aunt picks frozen redcurrants off their stems during a raspberry jam making session four years ago. Photo 27 August 2016, Cantal, France.

My aunt in 2014

My aunt six years ago. I used this picture to illustrate La Charlotte de Tati, her dessert recipe made with soft sponge biscuits. I now realise that we used the same biscuits on Saturday. Good things remain. Photo 29 September 2014, Cantal, France.

I have long seen jam making as a pleasant activity to share with family and friends. Now I know it can be more than that. In these particular circumstances, it had tangible healing effects on and around me. I think the benefits will last. The memory of my aunt’s smile when she sorted fruit on a summer afternoon, posed for the above photo on my father’s birthday or spread my blueberry jam, her favourite, ‘good for eyesight’ as she says, on a toast at tea time in winter will stay with us forever.

1 thought on “Helping hands

  1. Hello Jean Jacques,C’est super tout ça et c’est très appétissant !J’espère que tu vas bien et que l’on arrivera à se voir un de ces jours…😊La je suis à Clermont pour garder ma cousineJ’espère que ta tante va mieux…Bonjour à Michel de ma part,Grosses bises,and see You soon…😁🌿 ☀️

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