Whenever I travel anywhere a visit to the local market is always on my itinerary , whether it be a once a week van laden down with cheese and saucisson visiting a small french village or one of the massive markets in Cities such as the Boqueria in Barcelona.
But if i could only ever visit two, one would be the Fish Market in Catania , Sicily.
It is pure theatre, lots of excitable stall holders shouting out their wares, some of the freshest fish you will ever see, held in a square with an elevated walkway around it where you sit with a glass of cold white wine and a cone of fresh fried fish , it is just magic.
At the other end of the scale is the wholesale market of Rungis just 7km from Paris.
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 gone forever…
Well, not quite. The international Market of Rungis is the replacement market on the outskirts of Paris. It’s the world’s largest fresh food market, in fact it is larger than Monaco. More than 8 billion euros 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 is a must for anyone with the slightest interest in food.
If you want to go 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, 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 Maree Pavillion 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 – taking less than 24 hours from port to plate. Indeed every morning at 4.30am a Fedex Boeing 757 flies over my house in North Oxfordshire with fish from Rungis to the markets of Birmingham. Before the days of rapid transport, by the time the fish reached the market 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 place process is speedy, hygienic and slick.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE MARKET
The Triperie Pavillion 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 I couldn’t recognise. Particlarly gruesome is a demonstration of the preparation of that 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 just 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 of poultry and game. Huge joints of 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 or worse still…falling into a bin of pigs entrails.
I you are a Fromage fan you will love the cheese pavilion, its the world biggest cheese shop. Everywhere you look there are cheese of all shapes and sizes from mouth sized portions of Cabachou to wheels of Ementhal weighing 175 kilos. You can taste as much as you wish , though at 5.30am its a bit of a challenge.
Next up, fruit and veg. Stunning produce from all over the world including stuff 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 who was called “Larry Cover” , a clever play on “Le haricot vert” ( french beans)
Organic fruit and vegatables also have a place at Rungis. It’s a smaller pavilion but with over 40 different operators. There is also a Fresh Flower Pavilion where a truly stunning kaleidoscope of colours and perfumes from all over the world will wow you.
THE CAFES 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 cafes within the market .Whilst it my 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 quaffable Sancerre.
Paris is a magical city with much to tempt. From the Notre Dame, the Sacre Couer. 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 lists of must dos,
Find the details for booking a tour on the Rungis market website: http://www.visiterungis.com Tours are by coach from Paris and cost around 85 euros per person.