(if you are a vegetarian or just don’t have the stomach for photos of raw meat, shall we say, in its original form (i.e. whole animals), you might not wish to read this post OR skip to the bottom where there are the photos from the fruits and vegetable Pavilions. Rungis is a working market and food is sold there not in nicely packaged portions but ready to package into those nice portions!)
What on earth could possess me to be hanging out one Thursday morning in July at 4.30am outside the Eglise St Germain in Paris? A trip to Rungis Market, that’s what! After reading about this, the world’s largest wholesale market, on David Lebovitz’ blog, a visit to Rungis has been on my “to do one summer in Paris” list for a few years.
Covering close to 600 acres (2.43 km2)and located about 7 miles (just over 11km) south of Paris, Rungis is a city unto itself and is actually larger than the principality of Monaco. According to the Market’s Facts and Figures page, close to 12 000 people work at Rungis and their annual turnover is around €8 billion. The mere scale of the market intrigued me – I’d never seen an actual working wholesale market before (the closest I have come is the Oxford Covered Market in England – not wholesale but which rivalled this one in terms of the “whoa there’s what my steak looked like before it arrived nicely prepared on my plate” factor!) and I was keen to see this one. I guess I had a romanticised vision of it – in my mind it was still a little bit like Zola’s les Halles (the “Belly of Paris”) which had been a flourishing working market in the centre of Paris until 1969 when most of the market was moved out of Paris to Rungis and more modern, hygienic buildings and to give it the space it required – over in Les Halles, it was full to overflowing. But Zola’s “Belly” or not, I still wanted to see it. Somehow, over the years, I had never managed to get my act together until this past summer, when I started making inquiries about how to visit the market early in the year.
The Rungis Market site offers some information on visiting – stating “personalized tours by market professionals are available starting from 5 am, followed by a Rungis-style breakfast”, however these tours are just one day a month and it happened to coincide with a weekend I was not going to be in Paris. Bummer. A lot of scouting around the internet offered me a couple of other choices and I had read great things about Stephanie Curtis, an American expat but sadly, Stephanie informed me that she did offer tours but only by reservation and not for less than 3 people. Thus ensued some emailing around my Paris contacts to rustle up some extra bodies to make this tour happen and so it came to be that Meg and Sara from Paris by Mouth, and Dorie and Michael Greenspan and I were headed out to Rungis that Thursday morning in July along with Stephanie and Isabelle, our guide, oh so very early. In fact so early that people were still heading home from their nights out and we were just starting our day!
Sadly there is no proof that I took this tour with these fabulous folks as when we arrived, we were faced with this reality:
Even though it was just after 5 when we arrived, the Fish Pavilion was winding down – yes, they start their day early (like, at 2am!)
Despite the early hour, you’ll have to make sure you are on your toes (literally!) everywhere but especially in the Fish Pavilion – and it is a great reminder that you are in fact, visiting a real, working market. The workers there are just getting on with their day (well, it’s nearly the end of their day!) and it’s up to you to get out of their way as they go about their business (often on little forklifts that you certainly don’t want to be wrestling with on the slippery floor!). This, combined with the blazing fluorescent lights was most certainly was a wakeup call if you still needed one!
From the Fish we moved onto the Tripe Pavilion. I took a lot of photos in there (not all of which have a place here), weirdly fascinated by the various innards and animal body parts on display. The French certainly do subscribe to “Nose to Tail” philosophy when it comes to food. I’ve spared you most of these photos but suffice to say you really can find anything you are looking for in that pavilion. It’s also a great reminder of where your food is coming from (as are all the meat/ poultry/ fish pavilions) – something I think we can be a little out of touch with if we only buy our meat and fish pre-cut, pre-sliced and prettily packaged in the supermarket. Vegetarians should probably not visit this hall….
Yes, some chickens have their heads on and some of them still had their feathers but again, brings you right back to what food looks like before you see it at the supermarket (so, not quite “at the source” because it’s nicely packaged and cleaned up but certainly makes you aware of where that nice drumstick might have come from).
From Poultry to Meat – tiny animals (for the most part) to huge ones. Who would have thought a cow or a pig was so enormous? Certainly not me. The Meat Pavilion is not for the faint of heart and certainly I would not recommend it to vegetarians. Indeed, it might turn you into a vegetarian if you spend too long there. I hadn’t been well the day before our visit and the Meat pavilion just about did me in (“You’re looking rather pale” said Dorie at one point!). It’s a lot of big dead animals. I forced myself to focus on Isabelle’s explanations of how business is done in the Pavilions – Isabelle really knows a LOT about the market and its ins and outs (as does Stephanie) and I get the feeling she could talk for many more hours than the tour lasts.
I wonder if it’s coincidence that the more awake you are, the more palatable the Pavilions become? Because just after the Meat comes Cheese. I knew I must be feeling better because the Cheese Pavilion made my tummy rumble just a little!
Yup, it’s Mimolette, the cheese the FDA in the US refused to import from certain companies back in May because they contained “unacceptable mite levels.” Yes that’s right – Mimolette has a greyish crust when aged – the result of cheese mites intentionally introduced to add flavor by their action on the surface of the cheese. (Psst – it’s delicious!)
Of course, all around Rungis, you’ll not only see the market in action, you’ll see evidence of the sheer size of the place. The roads in the market boast all manner of street signs you won’t see on any normal street… And really – what market have you visited that needed its own road signs?
After the Cheese Pavilion, we mercifully stopped for breakfast. It was about 7.20 but it felt like lunchtime. Whilst we breakfasted, workers around us enjoyed wine, beers, full meals. I mean, it was lunch time for them..
Our visit wrapped up around 9am and we headed back to Paris, quietly contemplative after our “other worldly” early-morning experience. I think what struck me about Rungis was how clean it was. Not, of course, that this is a bad thing – it’s exactly what you want to see, but on the other hand, a little part of me was expecting it to be much more gruesome, blood and guts, gritty stuff à la Zola. Of course, realistically, given one of the reasons the market was moved out of the centre of Paris was to ensure proper hygiene by building much more modern market buildings, I couldn’t reasonably expect it to be all 19th century, now, could I? The cleanliness of the Pavilions was certainly impressive, even if it did take away from the “atmosphere” somewhat. But again, this is not a tourist destination – it’s a working market and I think I’d prefer that hygiene aspect to win over the “atmosphere” every time, wouldn’t you?
Another thing we all noticed and remarked on was the surprising (for us anyway) amount of pre-packaged foods available. Given the market caters to industry professionals, again, it’s reasonable to expect that you might be able to buy industrial sized meal components (think sauces etc…) there, but it was a little jarring to see that alongside food as close to the source as you can be unless you are on the farms the animals come from. Apparently there is a huge supermarket there for industry professionals though we didn’t visit, but in some of the Pavilions like the Dairy Pavilion we saw industrial-sized packages of things like pre-made pastry etc… Kind of quashed the romantic notion of French restaurants doing everything from scratch. With the recent controversy about the use of pre-packaged meal components (including entire dishes) in French restaurants, (whereby restaurants will be required to label dishes prepared from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens as “fait maison” – or home made), perhaps in the future we might see a little less of this?
In any case, a truly eye-opening experience and one I am glad I made the effort to organise. Rungis is definitely the Mothership of Markets!
How to visit Rungis Market
You pretty much have to visit Rungis with an official guide – unless you are a registered buyer or know a registered buyer/ seller which I am guessing many who simply want to visit won’t be! If you go, dress warmly – some of the pavilions are downright freezing and there’s nothing worse than being tired and cold! Here are some options:
I can’t recommend Stepahnie and her guide Isabelle highly enough. She offers tours only by reservation for a minimum of 3 people. The cost includes pick up and drop off at your Paris address, (thus round-trip transportation, appreciated by all at 5am in the morning!), plus entry into the market, the white uniform required for the visit, and a continental breakfast in one of the many bistros in the market, is €120 per person. You will visit all of the main pavilions, fish, poultry, meat, cheese, vegetables and fruit, and flowers. The best days for the visit are Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.
Offers personalized tours by Market professionals starting from 5 am, followed by a Rungis-style breakfast.
Meeting the French*
Offers tours for a minmum of 4 people starting around 5am and ending at 9am.
From €175 per person. Details here.
* I don’t have personal experience with either of these tours, however in my extensive research on how to visit Rungis they were the two other options I found that seemed easy to book for non-French speakers.
You might enjoy: David Lebovitz’ post on visiting Rungis
US/Canadian and International readers: Win one of three copies of Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah. Ends Tuesday October 8th, 2013 at 6pm EST.