Paris’s secret market

For an insider’s view on where Paris sources its finest produce, Eve Middleton joined a group tour of the Marché de Rungis

As visits to French markets go, this was the first time I had been confronted with a knife-wielding trader brandishing a blood-spattered blade the length of my forearm. Taking a hasty step back and neatly avoiding a dark ruby-red rump of beef hanging from the steel awnings, I marvelled as the butcher in front of me deftly cleaved his way through a dangling pork carcass, swiftly dispatching a rack of ribs and a series of piggy products destined for the patrons of Paris.

Although an unusual sight for most market shoppers – and even more so at 6 o’clock in the morning, when I witnessed this elegant execution of knife skills – here at the famous Marché de Rungis it is commonplace to see the alleys thronging with tradesmen from all food sectors plying their trade.

Officially opened on 3 March 1969 as the replacement for Les Halles in the centre of the French capital, the Marché de Rungis, dubbed the largest wholesale market in the world, is in the suburb of the same name around five kilometres south of the city centre. Serving buyers from across the country, some of whom travel hundreds of kilometres to snap up the top-quality produce, the market is shrouded in a romanticised air of mystery thanks to its big-screen appearance in Cédric Klapisch’s 2008 film Paris starring Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris.

The market, which covers more than 230 hectares, is accessible only to those with official identification, but the public can soak up the atmosphere on a three-hour group tour run by its head office.

Under instruction to meet at 5am outside the fishmongers’ pavilion, I soon found myself in the twilight with a group gamely donning disposable white hygienic caps and coats handed out by our guide Isabelle. “Follow me!”, she cried with preternatural levels of early-morning enthusiasm, ushering us in to the fish hall. As we entered the glass-fronted pavilion the size of an airport hangar, Isabelle’s energy was matched only by the bustling scene in front of us.

Boxes stacked high with ice chips and seaweed showed fat, wet-eyed fish glistening in tempting displays, while traders whizzed by on pallet trucks and rallied round to hose down their stands. “These boys are actually finishing their shift,” explained Isabelle, as I glanced at my watch to double-check that she did indeed mean they went home shortly after 5am. “Visitors are only allowed in now, as the negotiations on the trading floor start at 2am after the fish has come in – this is them winding down!”

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In common with all the guides at Rungis, Isabelle used to be a buyer before leaving the food trade to focus on her secondary art business. “It’s essential for guides to have an understanding of how Rungis works,” she explained, “There are more than 10,000 traders here, and when you get the buyers in as well, the number of people on site can easily eclipse 30,000 – when you’re showing people round, you have to know where to go and when; not to mention who to introduce them to.”

Moving on to the meat pavilion, where a flurry of cheek kisses and a profusion of cheery greetings illustrated her point, we saw everything from tiny poussins the size of a child’s fist lined up in neatly boxed rows, through to hulking great sides of beef that dwarfed the stallholders touting them; as with the fish pavilion, the lack of any aromas was proof of the freshness of the produce. The strongest-smelling area of the market – which incidentally, was my favourite thanks to a personal cheese fetish – was the dairy pavilion, where wheels of Comté nestled side-by-side with fresh goat’s cheeses and enormous vats of crème fraîche.

The sheer scale and wealth of produce at the market are breathtaking. As well as the fish, meat and dairy sectors, I found my jaw dropping at the vast display of technicolour symmetry in the fruit, vegetable and flower pavilions.

Knife-wielding butchers and white paper caps aside, a visit to Rungis proved a fascinating insight into a secret world entwined with French gastronomy. Stepping out in to the early-morning sunshine after my tour, the prospect of dining in Paris felt like an enriched privilege well-earned.

Prices start from €80 per person, English-language tours are available according to demand.

Tel: (Fr) 3 83 50 10 85

www.visiterungis.com

Eve travelled to Paris with Rail Europe. Fares from London to Paris start at £69 standard class return – to book call 0844 848 4070 or visit www.raileurope.co.uk