Gently squeezing the apricots

My "crime" does not go unnoticed. A stocky male figure whips out of nowhere and glowers at me. A hand is raised above my own, its hard edge poised to administer a chop to my knuckles.

"Non toccare!" he barks at me, with the form of address he would use for a naughty grandchild.

I suspect that under other circumstances he probably is a kindly grandfather or nonno. His curly hair is pure white, there are friendly crinkles about his eyes, and a gold band is embedded into the ring finger of his plump hand. Many grandchildren have probably clambered into his lap, and perhaps the older ones loaded up the fruit cart this morning, helping themselves to the occasional ripe apricot for their labors.

I suddenly feel as naughty as if I had been caught snitching the fruit. But, really, I wasn't - I was just squeezing it. Doesn't one always squeeze the fruit before buying it?

Apparently not Nonno's fruit - and certainly not in the middle of a wintry Saturday morning with a light mist still cloaking the sun, a chill wind scything through the piazza, and a line forming behind me.

I certainly hadn't expected to walk out of my pensione in Florence, and find the piazza between my door and the Laurentian Library filled with fruit and vegetable stalls. The produce can't be local - not in the midst of this infamous freeze of 1985, when snow has fallen as far south as Morocco.

By the time I recover from my chastisement, I realize that Nonno is asking, "Quanto?" I have to think. In the grocery store, I probably would have taken four or five. But Nonno wants to know how much by the chilo. Between kilos and lire, my Italian gets rattled. I pantomime a bag's worth and fortunately have cash to cover the transaction.

Later, when it's too cold to go out to eat, I content myself with supper in my unheated marble-floored room - a slab of cheese, tea - and apricots.

Today, as I walk down a broiling Boston street, I'm transported back to that experience in frigid Florence. My backpack is loaded with produce from a natural-foods market - one of each precious item. I graze my way home under the sun, slowly savoring a huge black plum that is more decadent than a chocolate tart. The flavor hits my palate midway between sweet and tart, and juice cascades down my chin. It's rare perfection.

My thoughts return to that Tuscan nonno. I now realize I didn't need to squeeze the fruit to see if it was ripe. He knew it was - as fruit should be.

Here I'm fortunate to ferret out the one ripe plum in the bin. I fish, too, for onions - clear down to the bottom to find one with a regular physiognomy, and that maneuver sends a half dozen less-favored ones skittering over the floor.

From my cornucopia, I derive a simple lunch - a buttery avocado, tortilla chips with a sultry corn flavor, Mexican cherry tomatoes warmed on my windowsill, and slices of room-temperature white cheddar cheese.

For a dessert to defy the day's heat and humidity, I make a quick sorbet, putting a few frozen peach slices, a half-cup of mini ice cubes, a big slug of milk, and a swoosh of sugar into my blender.

The peaches taste like peaches. I complement them with a few quadratini - little chocolate wafer squares from Italy. They're just the right touch as I think of the nonno. I mentally assure him that I've done as well here as in Tuscany - but I did have to squeeze the fruit.

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