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.
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.
"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?"
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: www.rungisinternational.com/pages/gb/Com/ visites.asp
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)