How I cop a feel at a market

Writers often compare women’s breasts to various fruits. Depending on the author’s imagination, the fruity analogues may vary from a fragrant peach to a pendulous pear to a well-endowed melon to a pejoratively buxom watermelon.

Hence, anyone who can claim, in the words of a popular song, that mammaries haunt the corners of his mind, will suffer no shortage of visual associations when shopping at a French farmers’ market.

Moreover, a libidinous chap may even get so excited by this associative abundance that he’ll feel an irresistible urge to add tactile perception to visual. This could be done either surreptitiously, by rubbing, as if inadvertently, an elbow against a woman’s breast in the crowd or savagely, by openly fondling a strange woman without permission.

The first would be infantile, the second possibly illegal. So, being neither a child nor a criminal, I hasten to reassure you that the claim made in the title above refers not to a woman’s breasts but to their visual analogues: fruit.

Since the thought of feeling up a strange woman in public never crosses my mind, I haven’t investigated French laws proscribing such an indiscretion. However, on general principle, they must be rather strict – especially since even in France women bizarrely object to being regarded as merely sex objects.

But, no matter how draconian such laws may be, they can’t possibly be stricter than the rules protecting the inviolability of fruit and veg to any unauthorised fondling.

Some market traders exhibit written injunctions to the effect of DO NOT TOUCH FRUIT!!! Most don’t bother, just as no one puts up a sign saying “Don’t grab my wife’s breasts”. This is a rule of such long standing that it requires no explicit reiteration.

Now I have a real, as opposed to a facetious, confession to make: I’m a bit of a foodie. I like eating well and, since I’m married to an Englishwoman and can’t afford to eat out every day, I do all my own cooking.

Any serious cook will tell you that this means doing all my own buying: I can no more make a decent meal with someone else’s ingredients than I can play decent tennis with someone else’s racquet.

I further maintain than no serious cook can buy, say, a peach or tomato without touching it first. Appearances alone are deceptive, especially in these days of industrialised farming directed by government guidelines. Seasonality is a better indication, but even that doesn’t guarantee quality.

Peaches, for example, are in season now. Yet you may take two identical-looking fruit, and one will be harder than a rock or, to develop the earlier simile, any woman’s breast I’ve ever touched, while the other will be amorphously softer than either a rock or, well… you get the point.

If I buy tomatoes to make a sauce, I don’t mind them squirting juice at the slightest touch, the way a lactating breast squirts milk. However, I expect firm texture in a tomato destined for a salad.

So why don’t French farmers allow me to touch their produce? I can merely ask for a kilo of something, specifying the degree of desired firmness and hoping that the seller will comply.

The reason is fairly obvious. The trader doesn’t want me to skim all his best stuff off the top, leaving only scraps for other customers. His reputation may survive if a third of the firm peaches I requested turn out to be mushy, but not the next man in line being stuck with nothing but squishy fruit that disintegrates before he gets back to his 30-year-old Peugeot.

The tradesman’s motives are understandable, but that doesn’t make them any more forgivable. The French are wrong when saying that to understand all is to forgive all. Milking my simile for all it’s worth, and even a bit more, a woman may understand a ruffian feeling her up in a crowded place, but that doesn’t mean she’ll forgive him in a hurry.

Here it’s important to mention a difference between France and England. The English have fewer rules, but these tend to be rigorously enforced. The French, on the other hand, outscore the game of cricket in the number of rules governing the simplest of activities, such as the issuing of a planning permit to develop a loft.

However, any such rule can be trumped by a personal relationship based on friendship, mutual acquaintances or a bribe. I recall applying for such a permit, only to be told at the local council that the issue was so complex that it would take at least a year to resolve, probably longer. In fact, we got the permit the next day because our neighbour worked as secretary to the mayor.

The delicate issue of touching fruit can be resolved in the same manner. I’ve known many of our local traders for years, and after the first decade or so, they generously allowed me to find out what I was buying before I bought it. Even if the trader doesn’t know you, a polite request of “may I choose?” could work, although you must be prepared for a rude rebuke.

Come to think of it, this isn’t all that different from groping a woman. Ask politely – you never know your luck.

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