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French people’s love of good food is well known world over. However, not very many people know how much attention they pay to the transportation and distribution of food to ensure its freshness. This is the result of an incident. When Vatel, the most famous chef in the 18th century, killed himself because the fish he had ordered failed to arrive on time for the important dinner he was preparing. Ever since food has priority in every mode of transportation in France.
Les Halles, the central fresh food market of Paris, dating back to 1136 was not only serving retailers and restaurateurs for centuries, but attracted thousands of tourists from all over the world. It had an atmosphere all of its own and “foodies” could not resist the temptation to pay a visit and see how they handled food, and of course eat in the many cafes catering to the workers.
Les Halles was a must see when in Paris for those who enjoy food, but in the 1970’s this old building could no longer handle the volume, and above all, the daily garbage fostered a huge population of rats that pest control companies could no longer keep in check.
Lois VI, Louis, created Louis III the Fat, since the downtown, Paris wholesale vegetable and meat market had become too small and generated too much garbage. At the time, Les Halles’ location was comfortably outside the city. But as Paris grew, les Halles grew in lockstep, becoming too cramped to function to the satisfaction of all.
Today Rungis occupies 320 hectares and employs 15,000 to facilitate the flow of millions of tonnes of produce, meat, cheese, poultry, and even flowers. The market opens at 3 a m, when most Parisians are asleep. Trucks deliver produce from neighbouring countries, fish from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, cheese from Spain, Italy and every corner of France. (France produces more than 250 different cheeses and general de Gaulle once asked rhetorically “How can you govern a country that produces 246 different cheeses?”)
Trains deliver less perishable bulky foods, and the most delicate merchandise arrives at the nearby Orly airport. Planners chose the location to avoid all modern traffic problems. It functions well! At least for the time being all needs are met. What will happen a century from now is anybody’s guess.
Rungis is a distribution point of food not only for France but for many European countries. The market is divided into sections: produce, dairy, seafood, meat, poultry and flowers.
In the produce section you can find the freshest, beautifully presents salads from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy, and pears from everywhere including California, Portugal, Germany, Belgium and southern France. I counted 19 varieties in October. Garlic comes from as far as China and as close as the Mediterranean coast of France.
When it comes to cheese, the mind boggles. The selection seems endless from creamy soft cheeses, to semi-hard, and hard cheeses like Parmiggiano Reggiano. Blue cheeses come from England, all corners of France, Denmark, Spain Italy and Germany’
About meat, pork, veal and beef dominate. However, more than meat is on the offer here. Variety cuts (offal) are available in a seemingly endless array starting with sweetbreads, brains, heart, lungs, tripe, kidneys and everything else imaginable.
Poultry offerings go by country, region, cut, and breed of chicken.
Rungis operates its own laundry facilitates and restaurants. After all 15 000 hard-working people have to be served well, particularly French who like to eat, rather than eat to live.
Rungis is a world all by itself. It can visited by all, but used only by professionals. Professionals must make a point to visit the place, and foodies just out of interest.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu