Rooting around Rungis
A tour of the world's largest wholesale fresh-food market leaves Lise Charlebois-Ludot dazzled and ready for a sturdy French breakfast
It's still dark; the sun won't be up for hours on this damp morning. The cobblestones glisten in the light of the streetlamps as the coach pulls out onto the boulevard. The bus is full, but nobody speaks. Instead, we all stare out of the windows, red-eyed, wondering why we've dragged ourselves from our beds at 4am while the rest of Paris sleeps. But as the coach heads into the southern suburbs, it becomes clear that not everyone is sleeping. Convoys of trucks and vans emerge from the fog on the highway, all headed for one place, the same place we're headed: Rungis, the bustling centre of trade and commerce that feeds all of Europe and beyond.
We, a small group of food lovers, organic produce enthusiasts, agriculture students and the simply curious, French and foreign alike, have braved an inhumanely early wake-up call to witness a day in the life of the largest wholesale fresh-food market in the world.
When we get there at 5am, things are in full swing and have been since midnight, when the catch of the day started arriving from the coasts. In fact, we've just made it in time for the tail end, because the market closes at 7am. What strikes you first is just how vast Rungis is. Our guide, Bérangère, (yes, to visit Rungis you either have to have an official guide or be on friendly terms with a restaurant owner with a pass) rattles off volumes and numbers, imposing on us just what a behemoth of trade Rungis is.
Fascinating, but at this stage my stomach is beginning to growl. I spy one of the several cafés and restaurants dotting the site.
A peek through the window reveals a heaving mass of butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers huddled along the bar, knocking back demis of blonde beer or ballons of red wine and chomping on fresh baguette, cheese and cured meats.
It looks like any other Parisian café, except most of the patrons are wearing blood-stained aprons. I'm about to slip through the doors when Bérangère shoots me a stern look, ordering me silently to get back into the ranks of our group.
We march through the entrance of the seafood hall and are greeted by the overwhelming smell of ... nothing. This stuff is so fresh much of it is still flipping and flapping, and what isn't has only recently stopped. We pick our way between the crates, dodging fork-lifts - and the occasional cat-call: "Hé, oh, les filles! Jump on and I'll show you the real Rungis!"
Next is the poultry and game hall. Bérangère is still regaling us with statistics, such as how many tonnes of food passes through Rungis every year (1 475 000 metric tonnes, in case you were wondering). I stop in front of a stall proudly displaying the words "Poulets de Bresse". Rows of the prized French chicken breed, known for its rich flavour and delicate meat, sit together, all plucked and trussed and ready for the oven. I glance at the sign on a slate above them. Whoa! At 15 euros a kilo, those had better be some tasty birds.
Working my way down the aisle, I spy Marans chickens with their beautiful white-and-black plumage, Mulard ducks waiting to be turned into melt-in-your-mouth confit and pheasants displayed on bunches of long wheat grass.
The pheasant stall segues into the small-game section of the hall, where I find hares, woodcocks and quails, among other items that leave me convinced that traditional French cookery is alive and well.
A vendor sees me admiring his partridges and hands me one to assess. I have no idea what makes a good partridge, but I nonetheless nod my head appreciatively. The vendor beams, asks if I live in Paris and hands me the card of a butcher that sells his birds to the public.
I head off in search of my group and meet up with them in the meat hall. There's a lot of furious negotiating going on, which normally I would find entertaining, but with its frigid temperatures, villainous hooks and enormous sides of beef swaying like curtains, not to mention the calf heads lined up on a shelf at eye level, I just want to get out of there.
On to the produce hall which, at first glance, looks like a box of crayons that has just exploded. Bright red radishes, golden potatoes, green beans, purple artichokes, carrots with sand still clinging to them, pale lettuces and sunny yellow peppers, cherries, plums and blush-pink apples.
This is the noisiest hall so far, with vendors shouting out prices and customers bidding, auction-style. I watch in amazement as the price of pomegranates climbs to astronomical heights and distributors shout, spittle flying, and wave fistfuls of cash in the air. A neighbouring vendor is handing out bunches of grapes. Now if only I had a bit of cheese ...
Luckily, the cheese and dairy hall is next. Charles de Gaulle once famously complained of the impossibility of governing a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. While he may have been right about France's impenetrable bureaucracy, he underestimated his country's passion for the smelly stuff. There are, at last count, more than 500 cow, goat and sheep's milk cheeses produced in France.
Happily, the cheesemongers are anything but stingy. We sample brocciu from Corsica, Neufchâtelfrom Normandy and a Saint Félicien from the Rhône-Alps region that brings a tear of ecstasy to my eyes. The vendors offer tiny glasses of wine to swish around in our mouths between tastes. It wouldn't do to have a bit of Reblochon after sampling some crumbly Bleu d'Auvergne without taking a sip in between "to clean things out".
Bérangère announces that it's time for breakfast. We make our way to a large restaurant in the middle of the market and take our places at a long table laid out with baskets of country-style bread, platters of cheese and cured meats, bowls of fresh fruit, coffee, tea, juice and pitchers of wine.
Normally I would balk at drinking anything but coffee at this hour, but after the "tasting" in the cheese hall, all I can say is "pass that jug of red down this way, will you?"
The platters and pitchers are handed around while we chat about all the gorgeous things we've just seen. Talking about food while sitting down to a groaning board; how very French indeed.
The last slices of smoked ham gone, we reluctantly get up from the table and file out to the bus.
And so we're back at our departure point in the centre of Paris and it's not even 10am.
The mist and fog have given way to sunshine and I've got the whole day ahead of me. Sticking my hand in my coat pocket, I pull out the business card given to me by the small-game vendor.
Why not? Today's as good as any to find out what to do with a partridge.
If you go
Air France flies non-stop from Johannesburg to Paris from R7200, or go with Lufthansa with a stop in Munich from R5 804.
HOW TO VISIT THE MARKET:
You must be accompanied by a professional, so unless you've got a butcher friend in Paris, your best bet is with Visite Rungis, a company specialising in guided tours of the market. Tours leave from the Denfert-Rochereau métro at 5am on the second Friday of every month. Visits in English are available and private tours can be arranged. From à65 per person. See www.visiterungis.com.
WHERE TO STAY:
Staying close to the tour's departure point is a good idea for a 5am start. There are hotels for all tastes and budgets in this busy district, which is a five-minute métro ride away from Notre Dame in the centre of the city and 10 minutes from the Eiffel Tower.
- Sophie Germain ***
12 Rue Sophie Germain www.hotelsophiegermain.com. +33 01 43 21 43 75. From 71 euros for a double room. Streamlined and stylish. The staff are friendly and helpful.
- Hôtel du Midi ***
4 Avenue René Coty
+33 01 43 27 23 25. From 100 euros for a double room. Modern and comfortable.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Denfert-Rochereau area is chock-a-block with bars, restaurants and cafés. You'll have your pick, from cozy and chic to venerable historical monuments, such as these:
- La Contre-Allée
83 Avenue Denfert-Rochereau 75014 Paris. +33 01 43 54 99 86. Superb food and discreet, knowledgeable staff.
- La Régalade
49 Avenue Jean-Moulin 75014 Paris. +33 01 45 45 68 58. Chef Yves Camdeborde's first restaurant still shines as one of the finest "néo-bistrots" in Paris.
- La Coupole
102 Boulevard du Montparnasse 75014 Paris. +33 01 43 20 14 20. www.flobrasseries.com/coupoleparis.
A historical monument, Josephine Baker used to cut a rug here.