It was Emile Zola who named the huge food market of Paris called Les Halles, “the belly of Paris”. The wonderful Parisian photographer Robert Doisneau captured its vibrant life in photos for nearly 50 years before it was closed in 1969 after more than 800 years of trading, a piece of Paris history gone forever…
Well, not quite. The International Market of Rungis is the replacement market on the outskirts of inner Paris. It’s the world’s largest wholesale fresh food market, in fact it’s larger than Monaco. More than 8 billion euros a year are spent here every year and more than 12,000 people work there.
A guided tour of Rungis
It’s not your usual tourist destination in Paris, but a tour of this incredible market makes for a fascinating visit.
If you want to go to there, you need to get up very early in the morning, guided tours start at 5am. Fortunately it’s a quick trip from the centre of Paris. When you arrive it feels like a bustling city within the city. Hundreds of lorries and vans of all types fill the streets – there are 26,000 vehicles delivering every day. It’s a mind-blowing sight.
Rungis is strictly wholesale, only holders of a purchasing card can buy. And, whilst the card is free, its issue is very strictly controlled and only available to professionals.
Rungis operates when most of us are asleep with the main action taking place much earlier than the organised tour allows for. Take the Marée pavilion dedicated to shellfish and seafood. It’s one of the stars of Rungis opening for business at 2 am. Their proud boast is that they sell the freshest fish in France – it takes less than 24 hours from port to plate. Before the days of rapid transport, by the time fish arrived in the capital from the coast it was starting to go off. A skillful fishmonger would remove all the bad bits with a sharp knife leaving two “fillets“ of eatable fish – hence the term “fish fillets”. These days the port to plate process is speedy, hygienic and slick.
Not your average market
The Triperie Pavilion is not for the squeamish or faint hearted. Looking like a scene from a horror film, there are bins full of entrails, kidneys, pigs trotters and bits you probably won’t recognise. Particularly gruesome is a demonstration of the preparation of the great French classic Tete de Veau. A giant of a worker clad like a medieval knight in protective chain mail takes hold of the boiled head of a cow. In two minutes, he can reduce it into various delicacies all wrapped and ready to be sold to the restaurants and butchers shops of Paris. It was enough to make me want to turn vegetarian.
The meat pavilion is wall to wall with carcasses of pork, lamb and venison. There are crates and crates of poultry and game. Huge joints of mouth-watering ribs of beef caught my eye making me forget my vegetarian musings.
The New Belly of Paris
Rungis is a working market and you get the impression that for some who work here, visitors are to be tolerated rather than welcomed. No surprise, these people are working their socks off while everyone is at home sleeping. You need to keep on your toes to avoid being run over by a horn blowing mini truck or worse still – falling into a bin of pigs entrails.
If you’re a fromage fan you will love the cheese pavilion, it’s the world biggest cheese shop. Everywhere you look are cheeses of all shapes and sizes from mouth size portions of Cabachou to wheels of Ementhal weighing 175 kilos. You can taste some, though at 5.30 in the morning it takes a bit of getting used to.
Next up, fruit and veg. Stunning produce from all over the world including stuff that I have never heard of and one fruit that looked positively frightening. A bit of French humour was on show at a stall of French beans from a producer whose name was “Larry Cover”, a clever play on “Le haricot vert” (French beans).
Organic fruit and vegetables also have a place in Rungis. It’s a smaller pavilion but with over 40 different operators. There’s also a Fresh Flower pavilion where a truly stunning kaleidoscope of colours and perfumes from all over the world will wow you.
The cafés of Rungis
After looking at some of the best produce in the world it’s time for food and, it’s part of the tour. Rungis has many restaurants and cafés within the market. Whilst it may be breakfast for those on the tour, it’s lunchtime for the market workers. Tables groan under the weight of pastries, cheeses, saucissons, hams, fruit and many other foodstuffs that you don’t’ see at a breakfast table every day. And it includes an excellent Bordeaux and a very quaff-able Sancerre.
Paris is a magical city with much to tempt. From Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, the charm of the Eiffel Tower that never dulls, taking coffee and people watching. But, if you have an interest in food and where it comes from then Rungis, the new belly of Paris, off the beaten track for sure, should be at the top of your list of must dos.
Find the details for booking a tour on the Rungis market website: www.visiterungis.com Tours are by coach from Paris and cost €85 per person