A Touchy Subject

When I first moved to Spain I used to get a kick out of touching fruit in supermarkets. I’d be walking through the produce section and say to my girlfriend, “Watch this…,” and as we passed near a bin piled high with oranges I’d reach out and tap one quickly with the tip of my finger–always looking around beforehand, naturally, to make sure nobody was watching. “Ooooh,” she’d say in mock horror, “you are bad!”

Perhaps I should explain. In Spain, you see, touching fruit or vegetables is akin to walking up to a salad bar in the United States and sneezing on the coleslaw. I once made the mistake of touching fruit with my hands at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid. Once. That was over twenty years ago, long before the Mercado San Miguel became the swanky tapas destination it is today. Back then it was a normal humble market and I was unwise in the ways of buying fruit. I picked up a handsome-looking pear and the vendor rebuked me in a tone of voice that would have been more appropriate had he caught me trying to steal his wallet.

The odd thing about this is that Spaniards are not fastidious people. Ask for bread in a bar and the waiter will grab a stick with his hands and cut off some hunks, pick them up and put them in a basket that never gets washed and hand it over. And nobody cares, me included. Sure he’s been fingering through the coin wells in the till all day long, but don’t sweat it, you’ll live. The butcher I often go to offers free samples of chorizo on Saturdays and he holds the sausage in one hand, cuts pieces with the other, and nudges them off the knife with his thumb, letting them fall on the bare steel counter where everyone plunks their money down. Like everyone else, I eat them, and it’s no big deal. I’ve seen a well-dressed father solve the problem of his crying baby’s dropped soother by picking it up off the streets of Madrid, giving it a purely ceremonious wipe, sucking on it as though that had the sterilizing properties of an autoclave, and then sticking it back into the baby’s mouth. Spanish people are not fussy about most things.

But dealing with fresh produce is something else entirely. While the rest of the world may be a little fastidious about everything, Spaniards seem to channel all their germ phobia into fruit. And it’s remarkable how strongly they feel about this. Fruit vendors at markets popular with tourists often display a sign written in a variety of languages warning tourists not to touch the fruit, and often in distinctly rude terms. I guess the thinking goes, you’re talking to the kind of ignorant degenerate who thinks it’s okay to touch fruit with his bare hands so you’ve got no other choice than to speak to him in language he understands. Something like, ‘Hey shitface: Hands off, okay?’ Or words to that effect.

This philosophy is not restricted to small vendors in the markets. It goes right to the highest corporate levels. The supermarket down the street from me actually broadcasts reminders over the intercom every 15 minutes telling people not to touch the fruit with their filthy, disease-dispersing paws. In their self-serve fruit and veggie area, there are stations stocked with plastic gloves, apparently so that regular pandemics don’t break out. While plastic gloves are commonly used for all kinds of food handling elsewhere, the Spanish seem to reserve them exclusively for picking fruit, possibly in the fear that if they were to broaden their use, they might run out of them. Then, naturally, nobody would eat any fruit and the nation would quickly succumb to scurvy. And the supermarket rules are quite clear; the rule applies to all fruit and vegetables. I have seen people walk into the fruit aisle, put on a glove, grab a bunch of bananas, put them in a plastic bag and then move on to the checkout. Bananas. Don’t they already come in their very own convenient protective packaging?

The case for using gloves to pick your own fruit might seem a little less absurd when it comes to say, apples, but here’s the thing, and this is where it gets really interesting. Spaniards don’t eat the peel of fruit anyway. In Spain you don’t ever see someone take a bite out of a piece of fruit. It’s just not done. Fruit is peeled, then cut into pieces. In family restaurants where they often serve fruit for dessert, they bring it to you on a plate with a knife and fork, whether they’re serving apples or pears or peaches or plums.

I recently went to the market to buy some fruit and, after walking around and eyeing up the various selections, I settled on a good-looking stall where an old woman was just finishing her transaction. She had a trolley cart, and was loading it up with her purchases. She was taking her time, finishing off a story about how her daughter Charo has a son, Manolito, and Manolito has taken to biting the other kids in his class, but his teacher said don’t worry, it’s just a phase, and then she added (with an unmistakable measure of pride) that the bites left lasting marks, and wasn’t Manolito a precocious thing, and on it went. The vendor, a woman in her 40s, looked at me with a smile that seemed to say, thanks for being patient, but I wasn’t in a hurry and besides, this kind of exchange is part of what I like about markets.

When Granny’s cart was finally loaded, I looked on in stunned silence as she rested her handbag right on top of the apples in front of her. Worse, as she dug for her wallet, she triggered a small avalanche of apples that cascaded onto the well-trodden concrete floor, bouncing and rolling away into dark, suspect corners that by the look of them, rarely received the full attention of a mop, not that that would have made it okay. Even a hardy soul would look at this floor, look at the fallen apples, and immediately concede the loss.

“Don’t worry about it señora,” the fruit lady told her. By which I understood her to mean, ‘I’ll clean up the mess and dispose of the infected items in the appropriate bio-hazard receptacle.’

But the old woman started bending over to collect the apples. I couldn’t just stand there and watch so I helped her. For the first time since the scarring rebuke I received in the old San Miguel market, I was picking up fruit with my hands in public—and fruit I wasn’t even planning on buying.

Not sure what to do with the apples I’d collected, I cradled them in my arms, waiting to see what Granny would do with hers. To my profound amazement, she nonchalantly put them right back with the rest of them. I timidly did the same, half expecting that somehow I might still get chastised because the old lady is old, so she gets a pass, but I should have known better. But the fruit lady just smiled as though nothing had happened. I was, and remain, speechless.

Lately, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve come around to the idea of peeling my fruit. It is, actually, quite enjoyable to eat that way. Besides, you never know where it’s been. And sometimes, for that matter, you do.

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33 Responses to A Touchy Subject

  1. Mouchacha October 2, 2012 at 08:58 #

    That is the most deeply touching story about fruit that I have ever read.

    • Mike Randolph October 2, 2012 at 11:03 #

      When it comes to writing about fruit, you have to have the right touch. (Oh boy. That was lame, but I tried.)

      • lynnieloo64 October 3, 2012 at 10:40 #

        Michael, thank you so much for the ‘enlightening’ yet hilarious truth about fruit fondling in Spain….who knew? Beautifully written by the way!

        • Mike Randolph October 3, 2012 at 10:50 #

          Thanks lynnieloo. A Spanish friend of mine commented on this via twitter and he said he goes to the same fruit vendor all the time, and after a while, he was actually allowed to touch the fruit. But you have to go on quite a few dates first.

  2. Beth October 2, 2012 at 11:08 #

    After reading the story about the apple avalanche, now I am thinking maybe the gloves in the grocery stores are to protect my hands from filthy fruit as opposed to the reverse…. This was a great read. Thanks.

  3. mouchacha October 3, 2012 at 09:04 #

    I’ve never been anywhere in the world that compares to the stunning and immaculate produce displays that are created in the spanish markets. Entering the market in Barcelona took my breath away, it’s an unconcious, community created design of colour blocking. Each vendor creates their own component of the whole image. Nobody talks to each other about it…yet it looks amazing as a complete compostion. Mess wtih one fruit in the wrong way and the entire design integrity of the market could go off the rails.

    • Mike Randolph October 3, 2012 at 09:19 #

      I couldn’t agree more. Barcelona has some of Spain’s best markets, for sure. But for me, the best market in Spain, and possibly in Europe, is the central market in Valencia. Stay tuned for my upcoming video of Valencia’s cathedral of food!

  4. roamingtheworld October 15, 2012 at 00:38 #

    After a year in Spain, I still don’t understand the big deal about touching fruit or vegetables at the grocery store or market. They seem to have forgotten that produce comes from the Earth, and there are many hands who will touch it before it makes its way to the customer.

    I hadn’t thought about how Spaniards always peel their fruit too, which perplexes me even more.

    I still try to avoid plastic gloves at the supermarket but always feel like a rebel and make sure no one is watching…

    • Mike Randolph October 15, 2012 at 10:47 #

      It’s a mystery. To add a further irony, the peel is the most nutritious part of the fruit, so to not eat it misses the point.

  5. julvic October 16, 2012 at 17:18 #

    The reason the vendors don’t want you to touch the fruit is to prevent people from bruising it. In Spain, fruit is sold mostly when it is already ripe since it is produced not far from the point of sale, and thus is ready to eat. The vendor expects the buyer to describe to him or her what you want the fruit for, i.e.: ready to eat, or for the weekend, or a touch firm, or to make a certain dish. As for peeling the fruit, this is done mainly in dining rooms. I believe it probably was originally for protection but by now most people have developed a habit and palate for a more refined fruit taste, regardless of the possible benefits of eating the peel. Also, bear in mind that fruit in Spain is not regarded as a snack (except perhaps for bananas) and it is traditionally served at home usually every day as a dessert and if ordered in a restaurant, it is served with fork and knife… When I went to school, learning how to peel fruit with a knife and fork was a core subject – no pun intended=)

    • Mike Randolph October 16, 2012 at 17:52 #

      Thanks for your comment, julvic. But I have to respectfully disagree with the first part of it. The whole reason supermarkets provide the whispy thin plastic gloves is so that people can in fact touch the fruit and check for ripeness…possibly bruising it in the process. Of course, checking for ripeness doesn’t apply to at least half of what people are buying: apples, bananas, lemons, limes, oranges, etcetera, yet the rules are quite, ahem, firm, if you will, in stating that gloves must be used for all fruit.

      • julvic October 17, 2012 at 17:07 #

        Aha! thanks for clarifying, it adds to the mystery. Regardless, the fruit tastes fantastic. I enjoyed your comments.

        • Mike Randolph October 17, 2012 at 17:15 #

          I wanted to also say that some people who eat fruit with a knife and fork are real experts–they make it look very elegant. I think they should continue to teach it in schools!

  6. Helen Fairlie October 17, 2012 at 16:48 #

    I religiously wear the plastic gloves when I am asked in Mercadona – Lidl – or any other supermarket that provides them.
    Your article really interested me, as I have wondered for some time now the reasoning behind this.
    So WHY ——- when I go to my local market in my small town does this not matter. There – they are quite happy to pass me a bag, and after “choosing” the fruit ( and vegetables ) that I wish to purchase, they simply weigh and I pay !!! no plastic gloves in sight. I can therefore only assume they are just desperate to sell. Interesting though – obviously the local vendor simply wants to sell irrespective of who has touched what !!!! Good article – thank you.

  7. Sarita October 17, 2012 at 21:46 #

    I find a similar thing applies if I want to buy just one cucumber, for example, it has to be put into a bag, they cannot conceive selling it without it going into a bag! I suggest fruit lovers visit Colombia and other South American nations with tropical climates, the fruit displays there are also mind-blowing.

  8. ilovetortilladepatatas November 12, 2012 at 17:39 #

    This post made me smile 🙂
    It is so true!! Now that I live in The Netherlands, it is all the way around. Here you get to pick your own fruit. But I kept myself asking for permission to take the fruit in stalls the first 6 months here. I guess you understand why.
    You have a new follower here!

    • Mike Randolph November 13, 2012 at 10:50 #

      Hello and welcome! Hope you’re enjoying picking your own fruit in The Netherlands. Funny thing is, it’s probably Spanish fruit.

  9. Liz February 28, 2013 at 13:16 #

    I may have touched some fruit. You should have warned me!

  10. Mike Randolph February 28, 2013 at 13:21 #

    Well, they rarely throw things at you… 🙂

  11. Alex March 17, 2013 at 16:26 #

    This post has pleasantly surprised me. I’m a Spanish now living in Germany. During the early days in the country I could not understand that there wasn’t plastic gloves in markets to choose fruit and vegetables. I started by touching them through a plastic bag because I was dying of shame that someone would see me touch them with bare hands. I do not quite get used to see people playing with the fruit and then leaving them in place. Finally I stopped eating fruits or vegetables with edible skin (except tomatoes, impossible to stop eating them), and I buy a lot of bananas, oranges, tangerines, melons… Or packaged fruit… I know it’s stupid of me, but I can not avoid. Cultural defect, I guess.

    Thanks for your photos, now I’m far it’s so important for me remember my people.

    • Mike Randolph March 27, 2013 at 20:15 #

      Thanks Alex. Don’t let it stop you from eating fruit in Germany–it’s probably from Spain, so that should help remind you of home, too.

  12. Carren Stika March 27, 2013 at 16:57 #

    I found out about this blog after reading another one that referenced it. What a absolute joy to read! This story has me smiling and laughing! Just wonderfully written, and the pictures are beautiful!! I live in Southern California, but I just subscribed to this blog and look forward to enjoying future entries and exploring past ones. What a great “find” this morning! 🙂 Thank you! Now I have to get off to work.

  13. Mike Randolph March 27, 2013 at 20:14 #

    Thank you very much for such a nice comment, Carren. Glad to have you aboard!

  14. LMorland April 1, 2013 at 10:54 #

    This was indeed a most entertaining blog post, and (as others have noted) beautifully written.

    As an American living in France, I thought I’d report that France is halfway between Spain and… Germany? The Netherlands? Because one must absolutely not touch the fruit in France, either. However, no plastic gloves ever enter the equation.

    In France, only the vendors do the touching. You point, or ask, for a particular fruit or vegetable, and they pick the appropriate one from their collection, slide it into a paper bag and place it next to their scale. When you’ve finished your orer, they weigh everything, count it all up, and then hand it to you. Then you pay. The point is that the vendors don’t want you to bruise their wares. Germs don’t seem to be part of the equation at all!

    P.S. You can get terrific produce in French marchés, but for sheer beauty and spectacle none I’ve seen can begin to match the breathtaking displays in la Boqueria de Barcelona. There’s a huge cultural difference, right there. (Funny that I’ve never noticed the plastic gloves.)

  15. Tony August 24, 2015 at 18:26 #

    Hello, I live in Italy now, but from the US, and have 10 years in Mexico as well. I could not understand the plastic glove thing. it is here in Italy as well. I took a totally different hypothesis on the subject, and only today when I was thinking of it did I google it, and saw this string. I laughed, as my hypothesis was completely wrong. So, a little background, I have Italian friends, and they often speak of GMF foods, and organic foods… So, I made the connection that the people used the plastic bags to not touch the foods that might have pesticides on them until they could wash them at home. Of course, your explanation is the right one, but I never saw that coming. Partly because in Mexico, all the fruits and veggies that do not have a peel are washed, and soaked in a disinfectant. So, my hypothesis was based on the snips of things I have been exposed too. I also agree with your comments, that fruit is handled many times, and strange to be so concerned about the final “Touch Point”, and not all the touch points that have happened along the way.

  16. Alvaro Menendez October 13, 2016 at 16:23 #

    When I was a kid (I’m 46) everybody touched the fruit, any fruit, before buying it… every single buyer used to touch more than 5 pieces for every single “chosen one”, and they did not just touch it, It was normal to press it slightly with the whole hand. It was common knowledge than everybody was an expert at finding the right one by “touch”, even if they could argue for hours if a peach has to be soft to the touch or not… while the discussion time would increase exponentially if talking about what melons and watermelons should look / feel like to be perfect.

    A lot of fruits got damage and while still perfectly fine, edible and often excellent, It used, over a single day, to get “ugly” with dark spots all over, etc… eventually those fruits never could turn in a “chosen one” by anyone.

    When fruits started to get more expensive (once we started to export massively to foreign markets), the “fruterías” owners started to not allow customers to touch the fruits so they were the only ones who could do it as they couldn’t afford anymore sending those fruits to the trashbin every single day.

    Then supermarkets’ era begun (begining of the 80’s) but while you could get yourself mayoritie of the stuff, still all the perishable goods has they own micro stands with their “fruteros”, “charcuteros”, “carniceros”, etc, so customers STILL could’t touch the stuff.

    It was not so long ago (15-20 years) that people started getting their own fruit (more efficiency, less money to pay because less employers), and I guess the plastic gloves are somehow related to sanity goverment rules than anything else. Of course in local markets you still can’t touch the fruit.

    Hope it’s clear enough, excuse my por english.

    • Alvaro Menendez October 13, 2016 at 16:25 #

      Btw, I’ve found your blog today. wonderfull pics all over. Good work.

      • Mike Randolph October 31, 2016 at 10:41 #

        Thanks Alvaro, and thanks also for your comment on the fruit. Interesting!

  17. Margaret October 6, 2019 at 10:01 #

    Have the Spanish considered that by the time the glove is on their hand all these horrible deadly germs are already well spread out over the outside of it?

  18. Allison May 7, 2020 at 07:08 #

    Hmm. Maybe I’m missing something. But in Murcia, Spain the kids at school eat whole apples delivered to the school, and there are no gloves in the Mercadona. When you order a banana from a menu, you may receive a whole, unpeeled banana on a plate. There are some do not touch signs at the Mercadillo, but I also assumed it has to do with bruising. I have been chastised in US farmer’s market for doing the same. I’ll keep my eyes peeled in other Mercadonas around the country, though.


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