Food: Pile 'em high, sell 'em chic

Rungis market, Paris, may not have the rustic charm of its country counterparts, but for the food trade, it's the ultimate supermarket. Photographs by Benoit Rajau

What is most surprising about the food capital of the world (Paris, I'm afraid, not London) is that it does not produce so much as an ounce of its own food. Not a grain of wheat, a cauliflower or a single squirming shrimp. This might be said of any city. But in the case of Paris, the standards required by its inhabitants demand a system of distribution second to none. As the great gourmet Alexandre Grimod de la Reyniere, with typical French arrogance, pronounced: "It is here that the respective qualities of every type of food known to Man are most appreciated and put to the best use to satisfy Parisian sensuality." A tall order for the city's wholesale market, Rungis.

Having been warned of the size of Rungis before I visited, I hadn't fully appreciated its statistics. On arriving there, I felt like someone who had been told that an elephant was larger than a Chihuahua without having been presented with the whole truth. The trade-only market covers 220 hectares, larger than the principality of Monaco. There are over 1,500 companies and firms, including wholesale traders, brokers, producers, transportation companies, accessory suppliers, service firms, banks and restaurants. Within the market there are more than 11,000 permanent employees, and between 22,000 and 30,000 vehicles enter daily. Annually, some one million tonnes of fruit and vegetables, nearly 400,000 tonnes of meat, and 200,000 tonnes of seafood are traded. As well as 22m pot plants and 36m bunches of flowers.

It was in 1969 that Les Halles, "the stomach of Paris", was relocated to this purpose-built site nine miles south of the capital. Some 15 years ago, Rungis was a byword for all the specialised exotica like wild mushrooms, mesclun and La Ratte potatoes that we now take for granted. As such I had always imagined it to be the biggest, most exotic market in France, where famously the food-trade could get anything they wanted. Perhaps it was inevitable then that the stardust should be blown away by the freezing cold sleet that greeted us as we entered this prefab city.

My initial reaction to Rungis was a sinking heart. Driving up the main avenue with its row of brasseries on a drizzly, dark-blue dawn, the market seemed as impersonal, cold and far removed from the warmth and profusion usually associated with fresh food markets as could be imagined. The street lamps, which were strung with coloured light bulbs, only accentuated its unwelcoming froideur. Where were the chefs with their baskets slung over their arms selecting the finest available produce for lunch? Where were the keen inhabitants bartering over snails and palourdes?

The building, an uncompromising experiment in Sixties functional architecture, built with concrete, iron, corrugated plastic and flashing neon, didn't do the market any favours. Only the canopies above the brasseries, flapping and whistling as the wind swept through them, afforded some suggestion of kindness.

But rounding the corner into a pavilion, the energy of the place was revealed. We found ourselves in a forest of carcasses. Underfoot, the concrete floor was smeared with fat, while overhead there was a complex network of hooks for running the animals from one side of the room to another. Men in bloodied white overalls armed with cleavers went about their work with the kind of nonchalance that creeps in when you perform the same task day in, day out. The thud of cleavers could be heard well above any bantering. It was a scene straight out of the The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

From there we skipped across to the pavillon de triperie, where ox tongues pulled out by the roots hung in a rude display on hooks. By this time the meat market was nearing its end, and the bar within the pavilion was a jolly gathering of traders rounding off their morning's work with a glass of wine. The atmosphere was suggestive of anyone else's early evening, with the prospect of dinner, relaxation and bed ahead. Even with a cup of coffee, it was impossible not to feel lulled by the humid warmth of coming in from a fridge.

The vegetable pavilion is a civilised world away with its cool, calm atmosphere. The beauty of Rungis is not one of produce piled higgledy- piggledy in the way you would expect from a regional market, but one of symmetry and scale. There are leeks laid out in orderly rows, lettuces, maches, Swiss chards, cardoons and sacks of turnips that glow a ghostly white through blue netting sacks. Occasionally there is something arresting like the sight of Braeburn apples the size of grapefruits. In another pavilion there are immaculate mini carottes, fenouils, navets, poivrons and endives, boxes of mesclun, fresh thyme, and bunches of bay.

The cheese pavilion is pervaded with the kind of damp mouldy scent you might expect. Here there are the largest rounds of cheese I have ever seen - Emmental, Raclette and Parmesan. There is endless Brie, Cantal, Livarot, Camembert, and goat's cheeses dusted in sooty ash and rolled into logs. Suddenly the place comes alive as some joker turns the volume up on "Johnny B. Goode" to a deafening pitch that bounces around the cathedral space. All the traders join in, without having any greater clue as to what they're singing than you or I might if we sang along to Jane Birkin's "Je T'Aime".

Beneath its cold, austere shell, Rungis has a happy, vibrant heart and some mouthwatering sights. But ultimately, it's just a depot, and because members of the public can't shop among the professionals it's not somewhere to add to the list of places to visit in Paris. They may not be on the same scale, but our own markets like Billingsgate and Smithfield do have their charm

Rungis market, 1 Rue de la Tour, Rungis, Paris. Tours can be arranged in advance, telephone 00 331 41 80 80 81.

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