Located 7 km from Paris, Marché de Rungis is the largest wholesale market with fresh products in the world: a colossus that stretches over 234 hectares (excluding annexes) and operates at night, a true gastronomic landmark and a place-to-be for culinary professionals.
I arrived at Marché de Rungis one October night, as part of my training in Le Cordon Bleu’s Hautes Etudes du Gout program. At 2.30 am, a time when normally I would have been in bed, I equipped myself, according to the instructions, with warm clothes and went, along with my colleagues, to Rungis, for a study visit guided by Guy Chemla, professor at the Sorbonne, who told us the history of the place and showed us how to choose the best products.
At first sight, Rungis can be quite overwhelming – it has 234 hectares, 500 annexes included — you do not realize the size of the universe that lies in there until you actually start exploring it. Imagine a huge space, where you have to travel by bus between fish and meat, cheese, vegetables and flowers, but where everything has a natural order of its own, just like an ecosystem. With carefully selected items from the best artisans and producers, Rungis not only offers the widest variety of products to choose from, but it’s also a guarantee of their quality: “terroir” products, local or international, all exceptionally made or carefully grown, and rising up to the expectations and standards of the Chefs who come here as early as possible to stock up.
From haute cuisine restaurants to family bistros, everyone’s roads intersect at the Marché de Rungis — they don’t call it the largest wholesale market in the world for nothing. Over time, as we have learned, producer – market – buyer circuits were formed, to the point where, for example, a lobster from Brittany can travel from the original fisherman to Rungis, and then return to Brittany through a merchant or a restaurateur who bought it from Rungis.
But Marché de Rungis hasn’t always been like this. And it hasn’t always been to Rungis. Originally, the market was located inside Paris, in the area referred to as Les Halles – also known as “le ventre de Paris” (“the belly of Paris”), an expression that also gave the title of a famous novel by E. Zola – because by the 13th century, the establishment was rapidly becoming the largest market in Paris, and the entire city was feeding itself from here. But over time, the market became more and more cramped and uncomfortable for urban traffic, so in 1959, the authorities decided to move it outside Paris, to Rungis, which happened in 1969. After the transfer, the former halls were demolished, leaving behind an empty landscape, which people quickly nicknamed “le trou de Paris” (“the Paris hole”), but which later became the largest metro and RER station in the French capital. However, the name of the current neighborhood comes exactly from the former market halls, Les Halles.
In Rungis, the market experienced another period of expansion, which led to it being today the largest wholesale market for fresh food in the world, with five main pavilions: fish and seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, dairy and cheese, flowers and decorative plants, plus a special pavilion dedicated to organic products. Even if the generic market program runs from 2 am until 11 in the morning at the latest, the activity in the districts fluctuates – and it doesn’t take long for the goods to run out. We arrived at Rungis around 3 am and the fish and seafood sellers were almost done. It was the moment when the more intense activity at the meat pavilion began. Vegetables / fruits and dairy products followed, around 5 am. Precisely because they are fresh products, buyers will have the opportunity to make the best choices and negotiate the best price, depending on the volume. Over time, Chefs or supply managers have come to establish trusting relationships with sellers in Rungis, so that sometimes they do not even need to go there: they place their order by phone, and the requested goods are loaded into trucks, and sent directly to the restaurant.
Obviously, I couldn’t buy anything from there, but for a few moments I imagined myself the Chef of a Parisian restaurant, coming to Rungis to negotiate and choose my supplies. Along with my colleagues, we ended our adventure in Rungis with a convivial breakfast at the market’s bistro and then we collapsed in bed at 10 in the morning, just like after a very long party.