A Market Pulses At Paris' Gastronomic Heart
It's hard to know where to start when describing the Rungis International Food Market. It's bigger than the principality of Monaco. It has its own beltway and rail stop. It's equipped with banks, hotels, a truck repair shop and car rental agencies. Rungis market is its own city -- a city that lives at night.
It's no surprise that the world's largest food market is in Paris. For nine centuries, Rungis market has brought food to Parisians from the countryside and now from the whole world. The abundance of such fresh, high-quality products may be one reason French cuisine evolved into one of the world's richest.
After midnight, trucks begin to roll into Rungis from all corners of Europe. They're loaded with food that was harvested, plucked, shot or slaughtered, often that very day.
Starting at 2 a.m., buyers show up to haggle over the merchandise.
Tempers flare. But for the past millennium, the butchers, market vendors and restaurants of Paris have been doing their shopping like this. Eric Deladoire's family has sold seafood at the Rungis market for three generations.
"French gastronomy comes from these products. It's thanks to the fresh, high-quality food here that French cuisine is so savory, delicious and famous," he says.
'Stomach Of Paris'
Rungis began operating in the year 1110. Until 1969, it was located in the heart of Paris at a place called Les Halles.
Writer Emile Zola described Les Halles as "the stomach of Paris." Its atmosphere and hubbub were immortalized by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and captured in songs and films.
The market eventually outgrew its crowded, urban quarters and moved four miles out of the city to the village of Rungis. But the name Les Halles remains mythical.
Jacqui Lorenzo, a 61-year-old fishmonger who is buying sea urchins and live crabs for his Paris market stall, remembers Les Halles. "It was extraordinary. When American tourists came to Paris, they didn't ask to see the Eiffel Tower; they asked to see Les Halles. The atmosphere was formidable," he says.
In giant, connecting halls, meats and cheeses, fruits, vegetables and flowers regale every sense. Rungis feeds 11 million people in the Paris region every day, as well as supplying markets and restaurants around the world. Philippe Veral of the company Fayard Gastronomy exports to the U.S. and Asia from Rungis.
Veral points out what's available in the poultry and wild game hall: gray partridge, red partridge, pigeon, pheasant, venison, hare and duck.
The boxes full of hares and colorfully plumed pheasants are eye-popping, especially for an American used to saran-wrapped poultry without feet or feathers.
Next door in a giant meat hall, the scene conjures up a 19th century slaughterhouse: Sides of beef swing by on meat hooks, and men carry giant carcasses on their shoulders and backs. Another building is set aside exclusively for offal, or innards.
Serge Nadeau is a third-generation offal dealer. He stands next to a shelf of cow hearts as big as bowling balls. Thick cow tongues are laid out beside them. But Nadeau says the French don't eat like they used to. Housewives used to cook up veal head at home, he says. Now, people only go out for such dishes.
"We used to sell veal liver with sweetbread, with veal head. I sell, but not the same quantity as 10 years before," he says.
Nadeau wheels out a bin of calf heads, which have been scooped out and look more like pale veal masks, and explains the parts that people used to eat: the cheek, the tongue, the brain.
Tongues and brains are still selling at Rungis, as they have for more than 10 centuries. And though the market has lost much of the antiquated, inner-city charm of Les Halles, it's still the belly of Paris, and a fascinating place to observe one of the world's great food cultures. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.