During the 1960s, when Paris going through a fit of modernization, it was decided that Les Halles, the grand market that had been in the center of Paris for over a thousand years (in various guises), was going to be finally torn down and the merchants would be moved to a place well outside of the perimeter of Paris.
Reasons given were that the old market lacked hygienic facilities and was creating traffic problems (this was when it was famously declared that Paris would become more car-friendly, and highways were built through, and under, the city) and the food merchants from Les Halles either went out of business or moved en masse to Rungis, which officially opened in 1969. The grand pavillon was cleared quickly, then the building was razed and the old market disappeared from the city forever.
The shopping mall that stands in its place now is a blight to Paris, and part of a long, undending conversation about what to do with the ugly error that was erected in its place; an underground shopping center which is avoided by most Parisians as much as possible.
After living here for a number of years, I now understand the famous French reluctance to change. Because things can go either way, and when major mistakes are made, it’s hard to rectify them.
But back then, how exciting it must have been to have Les Halles in Paris, where you could go and buy direct from merchants and farmers, who’d travel from various regions in France to sell their wares in the towering steel-and-glass halls. For those who have read The Belly of Paris, you will surely remember the mental images of mountain-sized piles of cabbages and huge animal carcasses being hauled across the expansive pavilion. Part of the market was rebuilt in Nogent-sur-Marne, a suburb outside of Paris, and it’s possible to visit via the commuter train, which in a cruel twist, goes direct from the rail station underneath the building that replaced the old market.
Today, the Rungis market is where the action is—lively and vibrant, buzzing with modernity; lights, running water, toilets, and easily cleanable surfaces are everywhere. It’s the largest wholesale market in the world and a virtual city with banks, hotels, gas stations, and restaurants. Almost 12,000 people work at Rungis and nearly €8 billion worth of goods pass through the market each year.
I’ve never really had a hankering to visit Rungis since to me, aside from what replaced Les Halles in Paris, it represented much of the downfall of French cuisine: the industrialization of the food supply and the defining move away from the focus on producers to large-scale growers and suppliers. It’s become an awkward point of national pride when I hear people boasting about the fraîcheur (freshness) and the l’hygiène, and the ability to ship things from long distances. However I’m not convinced that’s had a positive effect on France and their cuisine.
I suppose cleanliness, plentiful varieties of fish, and sky-high crates of tomatoes in October are things that have their merits. (And after living in Paris for a number of years, I very much appreciated the abundance of restrooms, though.) So this year with my Paris tour, since it has become an intergral part of French gastronomy, as well as the culture of modern France, I thought it would be interesting to take my group to Rungis so we could all have a look for ourselves.
(Just a note: This post contains pictures taken in the various buildings of Rungis, including the halls were meat, game, and offal are butchered and sold. There are pictures of the various animal parts as well as eviscerated animals. They are part of life in France, as well as Rungis market. People who might find those kinds of images disturbing should take that into consideration when reading this post.)
Speaking of unpleasant images, me at 2:30 am makes looking at a butchered animal relatively benign. But if you want to see the action, the seafood hall opens at 2am and you really do want to be there very early to catch as much of the catch du jour as possible. If you arrive after 6 am, well, you might as well have stayed in bed. (Which is where I felt like staying that morning when my alarm bolted me awake at 2:30 am.)
Unlike some of the markets in Paris, at Rungis, touching is allowed and even encouraged as buyers want to check out the ripeness of a cheese or the heft of a fish for themselves. Nothing is hidden here. And interestingly, no one blinks an eye if you want to take a photograph. However individuals can’t shop at Rungis without a buyers card, which are available only to business owners. So unless you’re in the market for a side of beef or a crate of kite-sized turbo, you’re limited to looking.
We got there extra early, purposely in time to see the fish being traded and sold, packed in Styrofoam tubs brimming with ice, and hauled out the doors. In fact, there’s a giant ice-maker and warehouse just outside, a multi-story building roughly the size of a small hotel. Next summer I’m going to see if they have any rooms for rent.
These are the last two remaining tuna fish in the world. That’s just a joke, but it’s no joke that the world’s supply of bluefin tuna are disappearing. When I asked a fish monger at my market one day if they felt any qualms about selling bluefin tuna, he said, “It’s terrible the way tuna are hunted by radar and airplane in some countries, then too many fish are taken out of the sea. So that’s bad. But our tuna is all line caught.” Um, okay.
On Rungis’ page on sustainable development, there was plenty on how good they were at recycling boxes and the efficiency of the heating system, but there was nothing on promoting sustainable varieties of fish. (Or raising meat, chicken, and pork humanely.) So it was disconcerting to be standing over a few dead bluefin tuna specimens, lolling around on boxes.
A few guests also noted that it was hard to look at them, knowing that they’re on the verge of extinction. It’s a perplexing dilemma and it was gratifying to see plenty of smaller, more sustainable fish, such as sardines and mackerel for sale as well. And the French don’t shy away from less-expensive varieties of fish, many of which are the best-tasting and most nutritious, too.
Ever since my days when I worked at the fish market in Paris, I am still fascinated by all the various species of sea creatures that are available here. Especially the stubby gray conger eels coiled up in boxes, les sabres (scabbardfish or cutlassfish), which are packed in like thin strips of intertwined metal, and tight bundles of razor clams, whose slithery insides recoiled when I poked one with my finger.
Rungis is a real working market and visitors are relatively rare. So you’ll always need to be on your toes, no easy feat at 3 am when the forklifts come barreling through the aisles, blaring their horns. And if you don’t move out of the way, you might find yourself being spirited up and outta there. I was warned that it was easy to take a wrong turn and get lost, which our driver did, even though he is a regular shopper at Rungis himself.
You need to be nimble and get out to the way, especially in the tripe halls when big bloody bins of various animal parts are wheeled and paraded around, and you certainly don’t want to have any hare-raising adventures. (Sorry..couldn’t resist….)
My favorite place in the market was the poultry hall. (Well, after the Pavillon de la Triperie, which we’ll get to.) In France, hunting game is only allowed during certain seasons, and the season just began, so there was everything from feathery grouse, doves, and skinned pheasants lined neatly in boxes with their talons sticking straight up in the air, as if to signal their surrender.
In the center of the poultry hall was Le Saint Hubert, a glass-enclosed café named after the patron saint of hunting, where the merchants were packed together like non-free range chickens, drinking coffee and taking a break. It was quite a sight.
You won’t find any picturesque slices or wedges of cheese at Rungis; here it’s wholesale-only. And the cheese selection in the halls was a little sparse. I imagine most of the cheese shops in Paris get their cheeses from the producers or from other sources. However there were some giant wheels of Comté, herb-coated Brin d’Amor from Corsica, and lots of little crottins and pails of thick, sticky crème fraîche packed and ready to go.
The produce halls were filled with boxes stacked halfway to the ceiling. Before we entered, I offered a €100 reward for anyone who could locate the ever-elusive kale, which a few of us are on the hunt to find in Paris. There was no reward for corn on the cob, which interestingly was available, because it’s sold in Asian and African markets, and in ethnic neighborhoods of Paris, one can find vendors roasting ears on the corner. They’re usually so tough that they give your teeth a good workout, although steamed, the corn on the cob isn’t bad.
Anything but bad were the wild mushrooms. Jumbo cèpes and dainty girolles (chanterelles) were packed in wooden boxes, along with their cultivated counterparts, the champignons de Paris, or common button mushrooms, which are said to have originated in France in 1707 in a somewhat darker form.
The French are not big users of spices and chiles. Instead, fresh herbs play a major role in French cooking. When I moved here, I was happy to find them readily available at the outdoor markets, sold inexpensively, and I always could keep a fresh supply of them on hand.
The most common herb used in savory cooking, after parsley, is thyme, and in France, it’s always sold with the roots still attached, so it lasts longer. The thyme here is also much stronger than the thyme I was used to cooking with back in California and I’ve had to dial back how much I put in foods, even though I never thought I could get enough fresh thyme.
Sage is still elusive in France, but rosemary, tarragon, chervil, and bay leaves are put to good use in French cuisine.
Lest you think the French don’t have a sense of humor, because of the early hour, it took me a few moments to get the joke of “Larry Cover” green beans. Le haricot vert is French for green bean, and is pronounced just like Larry Cover, when spoken with a French accent.
Aside from plenty of hothouse tomatoes, whose looks promise heirloom flavor but one bite is enough to discover that they’re all show, there were strawberries, red currants, and plenty of apples and pears. I didn’t see any of the lovely varieties, like Boskoop, Reine de Reinettes, or clochard apples that the growers bring to my local market, but there were late-season peaches and nectarines which I’m sure could join those aforementioned tomatoes in the aucun goût department.
Then onward we went, into the darkness, to the meat and tripe markets…
I had warned my guests that they might see things they considered shocking or icky, and if they did, they were welcome to excuse themselves from that part of the tour. But they were all troopers (or still asleep) and no one blinked at buckets of slippery innards and body parts, like cow hearts and pig heads displayed on meat hooks and arranged on stainless steel shelves. Bins were wheeled by that looked like a biology lesson in a box and I don’t know what a lot of that stuff was, but I had a weird image of falling into one, so I kept my distance.
Some might consider a tripe pavillon a giant shop of horrors, but I found it fascinating and it was my favorite part of the trip to Rungis.
It’s amusing to watch the whole “nose-to-tail” phenomenon happening elsewhere because the French have been eating that way for thousands of years without making a big deal about it. Of course, the current generation of French youth isn’t all that keen on chowing down on tête de veau with sauce gribiche or kidneys braised in cream sauce.
But cured meats and sausages are still popular in France. Yet I haven’t seen brains on any menus in a while, although perhaps I’m eating in the wrong restaurants.
Or the right ones? ; )
The French love cows. So much so that in 2004, La Poste issued a series of stamps depicting the various breeds of cows. I remember Romain cooing over them, and asking me which one was my favorite and I didn’t quite know how to respond. As much as I like a good steak every now and then, I’ve never ‘favorited’ a specific breed of cow.
Curiously, a good deal of the beef I saw was from Ireland. I guess because they have so many dairy cattle there, naturally a good amount of beef comes from the isle. There was no shortage of cow and pig heads hanging up everywhere, and other animal parts were well-represented, too. For some reason, I knew I wouldn’t be ordering the steak tartare at our upcoming meal.
At the end of the market, we finally sat down for dinner (aka; breakfast), passing a long row of butchers with their blood-stained aprons, lined up at the bar drinking coffee or white wine. This was presumably the end of their day, or their mid-’afternoon’ break. I wanted to take a picture of them all standing there, but I’d seen what they could do with a cleaver, and kept my camera capped.
A big pile of steak tartare didn’t have much appeal after what we’d seen, but Louisa Chu, my friend who led the group through Rungis, was up to the task. But it would have seems folly not to join the crowd and rip into a juicy steak, even though it was barely 8 am.
Of course, a carafe of fruity Beaujolais stood in for my normal morning jus d’orange. Which is not something I’m ready to do on a regular basis. But I figured this morning, it was warranted. The additional glasses, well, I can’t explain them.
Rungis (Official Website)
In order to visit Rungis, it’s pretty much required that you join a guided tour. Although I’ve heard it’s possible to finess yourself into the various food halls, it isn’t really allowed and you might find yourself in an awkward position if there’s a problem or you get questioned.
Rungis itself runs group tours. Go to the site Visit Rungis for specific information, and I’ve listed a few tour operators that arrange visits as well in the links below. Note that the market opens at 2am, specifically the seafood hall, so going early means you will see the biggest variety of items.
A Visit to Rungis (FX Cuisine)
Rungis Market Sightseeing Tour (Easy Dream)*
Rungis Market Tours (Stephanie Curtis)*
Rungis: The Biggest Fresh-Food ‘Buffet’ in the World (Christian Science Monitor)
The Biggest Market in the World: Rungis (Ms. Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour)
*I don’t have any experience or affiliation with these tour operators listed and provide their links for information only. I have not taken their tours so cannot offer a personal recommendation.