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Rungis: the biggest fresh-food 'buffet' in the world

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"We might have lost the Olympics," Lartigue said with a smile, "But we've got the biggest cheese plate in the world." French cheesemakers produce a remarkable number of cheeses, a fact that prompted former President Charles de Gaulle to wonder aloud: "How can you govern a country that produces 246 different cheeses?"

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After rejoicing over such a scene, our group moved on to the meat market, a clean, cool pavilion with proud vendors standing in front of their stands, smiling as we went by. Michel, always ready to answer questions, talked to us about different cuts of meat and butchers' traditions throughout Europe.

We then came to the fruit and vegetable section, the largest in the market. Rungis has eight fruit and vegetable halls, and many buyers use bicycles to move among them. The display of seasonal fruits was dazzling: there were exotic fruits, such as plump golden cherries, yellow raspberries; melons, kaki fruits (Asian persimmons), and dozens more.

Not being able to touch or taste them was a torment. The vegetables were no less alluring. Onions and tomatoes came in all shapes and sizes, as did the potatoes, zucchini, multicolored peppers and many other offerings.

As the tour came to a close and the promise of breakfast grew nearer, our steps hastened toward the final stop in the flower market. Again, the sheer quantity of fresh flowers was astounding, as was the palette of colors under one roof.

It was just past 8 a.m. when we sat down for breakfast in one of the market's many cafes. Most of the workers were finishing up their lunch, and our menu was adjusted to theirs. We were served plates of fine charcuterie (dried meats) and fresh bread.

It felt a little early for such a substantial breakfast, but since we had been up for hours, we eagerly tucked into smoked ham, pâté, and baguettes, followed by a slice of deliciously moist chocolate cake.

Replenished and content, we headed back to the minibus and home for an "afternoon" nap.

To book a tour of Rungis, go to: visites.asp

Fresh Tomato Sauce Pronto

This basic recipe is a good way to enjoy the avalanche of vine-ripened tomatoes that will start inundating markets soon. This recipe makes about three cups of sauce, and it freezes well. Serve it over the pasta of your choice or to top grilled fish or slices of grilled eggplant.

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds ripe plum or large round tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for one minute. Stir in the tomatoes. Simmer 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the basil. Simmer until the tomatoes are just tender but not falling apart, 5 to 8 minutes. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook over high heat to evaporate excess liquid, 2 to 5 minutes longer. Serve over the pasta of your choice.

Tip: A pinch of sugar will counteract the acidity of the tomatoes, if you like. Add the sugar before cooking. Experiment by adding a little at first, then add more if needed.

From 'Vegetables on the Side,' by Sallie Y. Williams (Macmillan, 1995)