Rungis: the biggest fresh-food 'buffet' in the world
Being a "foodie" is a delightful infatuation that can lead to all sorts of unexpected situations. And so it was that I found myself at 4:30 on a dark and drizzly summer morning in Paris, waiting for a bus to take me to a market.Skip to next paragraph
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Most rational individuals would not wrench themselves out of bed at such an hour for a trip to the market. But this was no ordinary market. I had signed up for a tour of Rungis, the largest fresh food market in the world.
Rungis, on the outskirts of Paris, is a wholesale food market - to the trade only. Previously located in central Paris in an area still called Les Halles, it was moved in the early 1970s to ease congestion in the city.
The market covers 573 acres, an area larger than Monaco. It welcomes 26,000 cars every day and nourishes one-fifth of the French population. Meat, fruit, vegetables, fish, and flowers converge here from across France, Europe, and the world before scattering to supermarket aisles or the finest Paris restaurants.
"Rungis is a real town in itself," said Michel Lartigue, our tour guide, as I got into the minibus with a dozen other sleepy tourists. "As well as all the food halls, there are banks, post offices, hairdressers, hotels, restaurants - you name it."
A short while later, we drove into Rungis. Hangars, streets, and lines of cars and trucks stretched as far as the eye could see. Wearing mandatory white overalls and hairnets provided by Michel, we stopped first at the fish market in a vast, recently built air-conditioned hall.
A typical day at the market starts at 2 a.m., which accounted for our early departure. The fish market opens before the others to ensure that the fish is as fresh as possible.
It was only 5:30 a.m. when we arrived, but the vendors were already winding down, pouring crushed ice on leftover seafood - squid, sardines, whole tuna, more fish than I could identify - before putting them in boxes for storage.
After a quick tour, we moved on to the poultry market in an older hall with an impressive arched ceiling made of wood. Here, a warm light glowed on the morning's activity as vendors, mostly men in dirty white aprons, bustled around their stalls, offering plucked chickens, pheasants, guinea fowl, and even foie gras for sale.
Our guide led us to a cafe with dark green and glass walls in the center of the food hall. It was teeming with men and women in white overalls having a break or eating lunch. I felt privileged to be among them.
While so many people enjoy the great markets and restaurants in France, few ever get to see the backbone of France's food industry. And here I was, in the heart of it.
The cafe was smoky and noisy, as workers - some 15,000 are employed at Rungis - chatted and laughed. "It's a hard life at Rungis, it's not for lazy people," said Michel, a Rungis habitué. He has worked here since 1979. "But it's very lively and interesting," he added. "There's an extraordinary conviviality." Throughout our tour, Michel would shake hands and joke with stall owners, later sharing stories or anecdotes with us.
"See that man there?" he told us, pointing to a stocky, jovial-looking man on the street as we headed toward the dairy market. "Well, he sells yogurt here, but he's also a wrestler. I went to see him in a match once."
Glad to be in the safe hands of Michel, we walked into the dairy market - the highlight of the trip. Picture a whole round of Parmesan or Emmenthal, cheeses of monumental proportions, and then multiply that vision endlessly. Thousands of whole cheeses made of milk from cows, goats, and sheep were packed high on shelves, along with boxes of yogurt, fromage frais (a creamy soft cheese often flavored with fruit or herbs and spices), and other dairy products.