The large market employs more than 12,000 workers. // © 2016 Paris Tourist Office/Amelie Dupont
Feature image (above): Rungis International Market covers 1,500 acres in Paris and is divided into five areas. // © 2016 Paris Tourist Office/Amelie Dupont
The fish pavilion opens at 2 a.m. and is closed by the time most people are just getting ready for their first cup of coffee. The fish and shellfish in the pavilion come from seas and oceans around world, to be sold to the restaurants and markets of Paris and beyond. Turbot, cod, monkfish, eel, tuna, lobsters, whelks and scallops still in their coral pink shells — just about any sea creature you could name is on display.
The pavilion is just one of many in Paris’ vast Rungis Marche International (Rungis International Market), which covers more than 1,500 acres. The market is divided into five sectors or market areas — fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood, dairy and delicatessen and flowers and plants — and these sectors include the pavilions, warehouses, ice-making facilities, shipping and receiving docks, restaurants and other facilities. The market, which is entirely enclosed, is like a small city, with streets, traffic, multiple buildings — including 21 restaurants — and parking areas. Each day, more than 12,000 employees make their way to Rungis alongside 3,000 trucks.
Cheese lovers will find their paradise at Rungis’ dairy pavilion, which features displays of huge wheels of hard-rind cheeses stacked high alongside boxed wheels of delicate soft cheeses. Nine different pavilions house the incredibly varied and colorful selection of fruits and vegetables, and the poultry and game pavilion holds duck, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants and wild birds I had only ever read about. Some of the more esoteric fowl goes to the Michelin-starred restaurants of Paris, while others are sold to more humble establishments. Duck, for example, like guinea hen, is frequently on Paris menus and in poultry counters, while it is far less common in the U.S.
If you love a good, well-aged, bone-in, marbled rib-eye steak, you’ll love visiting the meat pavilion. It’s like being at the receiving door of a huge steakhouse: It’s full of hanging sides of beef, ready to be grilled and served up to hungry diners. Two pavilions are devoted to pork and pork products alone, as the meat is so widely used for France’s famed head-to-tail charcuterie.
When I really knew that I was in the belly of Paris, though, was the moment I started walking the aisles of the “tripperie” pavilion, where nothing goes to waste. This is where it’s clear that offal — the organs and byproducts of a butchered animal, the use of which is almost gone from mainstream American markets and restaurants — is still a popular restaurant and home-cooked item in France, and all kinds of innards were on display.
The origins of the market go back to the 11th century, when a section in the heart of Paris that became known as Les Halles was set aside for wholesale food vendors. Narrow streets were packed in the early hours with people and carts, then later, with trucks moving food into and out of the city. During the 1950s and ’60s, before the market was moved to Rungis, a rite of passage for young Americans was to have onion soup before the sun was up at one of the workers’ restaurants in the heart of the market, surrounded by the busy coming and going of animal carcasses flung over shoulders.
Today, the wholesale market at Rungis — officially opened in 1969 — is restricted to wholesale purchasers, and visiting is only available with a certified guide. The market might lack the romance of old Paris, but the food is just as wondrous to behold. For food lovers like me, it is the ultimate shrine.
The market itself offers guided tours twice per month that include transportation to and from the center of Paris and a Rungis “worker’s breakfast,” which consists of plates of charcuterie, baskets of bread, juice, coffee and, of course, red wine. The tour is 80 euro per person and can be booked online.
Private tours for a minimum of four people can be arranged by La Route des Gourmets, owned and operated by Carole Metayer, who is an official Rungis guide. The tours cost 150 euro per person.