Waking up early, very early
We got up at 3 o’clock in the morning to catch the tour bus to the world’s largest food wholesale market, the Rungis wholesale market in Paris. Thankfully everybody in the bus was quiet at this time of the day, so it was easier to gear up in a smooth way.
After a 20 minute we entered the market which is basically a city in its own, 236 hectares (583 acres or 330 soccer pitches), larger than the Principality of Monaco. It is just gigantic. One German visitor who had visited the Hamburg wholesale market considers it now in comparison just as a little playground.
And there is no way that you can walk through the whole market area, it is just too big. There are also security considerations when groups are being transported around by a bus. There is just too many hectic lorries driving around.
Upon arrival we had to dress up a bit, we all got some white protective gear to wear during the whole visit. I had the impression it was less about the hygiene than rather for the guides not to loose sight of the visitors.
Francis – the basis of a great experience
The visitor groups were divided into the French and English speaking ones. The English speaking group was very small: 3 Germans and one Canadian. Lucky strike one. And Francis was our guide. Lucky strike two. He is working in the market since 10 years with a visible great passion. At least this how he guided us through the different halls. Always with a good portion of humor, full of knowledge and great envy to answer ALL the questions. Even though the tour was maybe 3 hours long, it felt much shorter.
The Rungis wholesale market offers all types of fresh produce: meat including poultry, some game, fish & seafood, fruit & vegetables, dairy (mainly cheese) as well as horticultural products. Some produce categories even occupy several of the huge halls. Here a more detailed plan of Rungis as a pdf.
The Rungis customers
Rungis does not cater for supermarket chains, they have their own direct trade platforms. Its customers are independent retailers, restaurants and especially vendors reselling at the many open markets in Paris. The latter ones may even be the most important ones – something which made me happy as a market fan. Due to the high rents for shops in Paris, the prices seem to be lower at the markets.
Indeed 65% of the trade is being done in Paris, only 10% goes outside France, mainly high value products. It is estimated that Rungis feeds daily 18 million people!
5000 trucks and 25000 vans per day plus one whole train from the South of France. Lots of merchants and supporting staff. All in a hurry. This is what is to expect in Rungis. It is a busy place where operation starts much earlier than our tour at 5am. Most of the merchandise has to roll out of the place before 6am to arrive in time for the shop openings in the different cities or to reach in time the ferry to the UK, which will not wait.
In the halls themselves most of the movements are fast, pallet jacks and forklifts are busy to put the orders into the right space. The merchants talking to buyers with their clipboards taking notes of the deals and prices.
I am surprised, despite being busy, how friendly the professionals were when one of us got into the way. But I also heard that some halls are off-limits for visitors to not disturb the operations.
Fish & seafood
We started at around 5 o’clock in the fish & seafood hall. The white Styrofoam boxes stapled on top of each other gave us the impression that we had entered Legoland, just with different content. And ultra fresh! Indeed the scallops in their shells looked better here than what I partly saw later in the shops.
“Where does the fish come from?” asked us Francis. After a couple seconds of silence he answered: “from the seaside”. We were relieved. “But also from the river side” he added.
Business was already winding down, making it easier for us to have close looks at the content of the boxes, with a large variety of different fishes, including not so common ones, e.g. shark steaks. We were wondering who would eat the latter one, especially as our Canadian companion mentioned that it is a rather tough meat.
Lots of fish comes from Norway as the 5m inhabitants “do not eat fish”. The country has a longer coastline than France and thus higher fishing quotas under the current EU rules, making it able to continuously supply in relevant quantities.
Not only fish is being traded in this hall, but also lobsters, langustas, crabs, shrimps, all kinds of mussels including oysters and scallops. Strangely enough, frog legs are also part of the seafood section but we could not see them anymore as they were already sold out to the restaurants. It is usually not a French product anymore, as the frogs are protected, they come now from other countries like Turkey.
The merchants know pretty well the types and sizes of fish which are in demand and have set up the supply chain accordingly. Tuna usually comes in sizes of up to 40kg. But if one customer wants a 100kg tuna, he will get it anyway if ordered in advance. Satisfying whatever kind of demand is a the heart of the merchants.
I liked how the boxes were labeled, besides the weight and origin of the fish, the scientific Latin name of the species was displayed giving it a very official status. I learned that Sparus pagrus is a red porgy (see also photo in the gallery). I might remember it …
Francis put our attention to the fact that no prices were attached to any merchandise. It is all a matter of negotiation between buyer and seller. I have no idea how this works and how the two parties remember the numbers. Just consider that salmon is being offered between 15 and 50€ per kilogram.
The deal is done with a handshake, the bill comes later. Here again I do not know how this seem to work. There is not digital machine which records the deal, it is all on paper. But there are offices in the upper floors of all halls. I hope these employees can read the handwritten numbers.
Vegetables & fruit
The vegetable and fruit hall truly showed the diversity of produce in Rungis. Yes the usual staples like tomatoes, potatoes, onion, cucumbers, salads etc. dominated the space. High “towers” of full boxes gave this hall a very colorful look. Buyers and seller were busy talking with each other fixing orders. We had to watch out for all the pallet jacks putting things together.
We got a closer look into the details. Suddenly we discovered on a few spots a merchant specialized in mushrooms: boxes of ceps in April (!) from South Africa, morels from Turkey and a few other specialities.
And then a small pallet of tiny tomatoes, called tomberry carefully put into transparent boxes. A buyer specialized on high-end restaurant even looked deeper into the matter and hand picked what he considered to be the best selection out of this quality item.
Strolling along I saw produce I had never seen before: radishes of all kinds of colors, sprouts unfamiliar to me, as well as salads where I needed a few moments to recognize at all what they were supposed to be. Happily enough I saw some cassava which reminded me of the my times on the African continent. Lots of discoveries.
Francis was pointing here and there and talking: this is top quality. As a German I am used to the term quality being used from a rather engineering perspective, meaning shape, size, color etc. But Francis comforted me, he was talking about superior taste when talking about quality. It fit exactly the cliché I have about French people 🙂
Nowadays we do not seem to have seasons anymore. Francis explained it via the cantaloupe. In the old days it arrived at the market from France only, then Morocco proved to be a good place for off-season growing but it was further stretched to Senegal allowing all three countries to have their own seasonal presence in Rungis.
Asking Francis what probably is the produce with the shortest season, he had to think for a while. Surprisingly it was a potato! A certain variety (I forgot the name), hyped by restaurants for its taste, has a season of 2 weeks only. Then the hype is over, it does not seem to be possible to grow it elsewhere for an extended season.
Before heading to the meat section we drove to the horticultural section. The hall was not as full and busy like the other ones. Another aspect also stood out: there were women working! In the other halls I did not remember having seen more than one, very much a men’s world.
The horticultural business in Rungis is declining, I believe to remember that half of the merchants closed their shops in the last ten years as the Dutch flower traders set up more powerful platforms. They have kind of a monopoly in Europe.
The merchants world
It is mainly a men’s world. And one where hard work dominates. In peak times, before festivities when revenues are at their peak, it is not rare that the merchants work 2 days straight without sleep. The urban legend says that they have less sleep in a week than a classic employee has working hours.
Pointing out at some fancy expensive cars in the parking lot, I was told that the shop owners do not have time to spend their earnings, so cars are an easy and pleasant way of doing so.
Meat – Beef and porc
The first thing which struck me in the meat hall was its cleanliness. Unbelievable. I am certainly not able to keep my home as clean as this meat hall. The cleanliness is also comforting considering that 18 million people are getting their food via Rungis.
The second thing which surprised me was the quantity of German beef especially Simmentaler Rind being sold. It has a reputation to deliver good quality meat . This one I have to check out when back home.
The third thing was the whole beef – except head and tail – hanging on hooks. Lots of meat jumping into our eyes. “What is this?” asked Francis showing on a row of big animals. “Beef of course” was my answer. I was completely wrong and I have should have known better. The meat did not have the red color of beef but more a light pink one due to being fed mainly with milk which does not have as much iron as grass. This is usually the color of veal meat. And it was a veal, a Limousin one. But it was huge, really huge, looked like an adult animal to me. Francis showed us the label: the calf was born on October 15th 2018 and was now 6 months old. I was baffled.
The topic of food waste came up naturally. There is just so much produce in one single spot. There is a simple answer and more interesting one.
Generally speaking there is not a lot of food waste, below 1% if I remember correctly. How is this being achieved?
First it really depends on the product itself. Potatoes or cheese can be stored for a longer period, whereas fish, strawberries, salads perish quickly. The merchants also have some experience in forecasting the demand and not ordering too much from their suppliers.
Every merchant has some kind of refrigeration to store products not being sold. And they know which quality levels the individual buyers need which helps them to steer the stock a bit better.
Last section: cheese
We approached our last hall, the cheese hall. It was probably the quietest one, due to the advanced hours. But the whole goodness of France was to be seen.
Comté, St. Marcellain, Brie de Meaux, Sein de Nounou, Banon, real Camembert, Boulette d’Avesnes and so many more names which help you to bluff your way through a party. Many of them were raw milk cheeses, truly to my delight. And all so nicely packaged. No sampling unfortunately.
And we got to see (not taste) the best cheese in the world – a goat cheese from the village where Francis originated from, big promise! A similar looking cheese from neighboring village was of course only half as good, if at all. Always when going back to his parental home he went to cheese makers next door to buy this cheese, only to discover after a few years that he could get it cheaper in Rungis.
Religions and their demand
Religious holidays mean more business for Rungis. Easter and Eid al-Fitr mean high demand for lamb, there is a Jewish holiday with high demand in living carps, and Christmas means foie gras and oysters etc.
Then the days are too short for all the working hours needed to feed Paris and the rest of the remaining world. The merchants are prepared, have negotiated with the suppliers, but then the weather changes. Easter 2019 meant good weather in Paris, a reason to leave home, go to the country side an eat there. This meant less business for the Rungis merchants. We saw some less happy faces.
Happy end, also called breakfast
It wasn’t dark anymore, the tour came to an end. But a new highlight was presented to us: breakfast. A real one! Not only the coffee we all badly needed before going to bed again in the hotel. Not only a croissant with some butter or jelly. A full charcuterie and cheese board full of delicacies from the island of Corsica. Even for somebody like me who enjoys quality AND quantity it was a great final experience. I wouldn’t say that the breakfast alone would have made me get up at 3 am, but…
Will the Internet kill the Rungis market?
Rungis seems to be confident that the Internet will not kill its business. It is not easy at all to find enough space for all the produce a city like Paris needs. Rungis has a strategic spot. All the infrastructure and processes to deliver continuously high quality in big enough quantities to the consumers via the retailers is not easy to replicate. Rungis knows how to handle perishable goods and keep hygiene to the highest level. Does this sound like a good reasoning?
All in all: Rungis wholesale market is a must-see for all who want to learn more about produce, its huge variety, origins and how it is being traded. And the breakfast is great 🙂
A little link list:
- The official website of Rungis in English
- Rungis on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
- The booking site for guided tours
- David Lebovitz wrote about the market in 2010
- The Food Republic posted as well
- And not to forget the New York Times
- Probably the best guide to the other markets in Paris from Marjorie R. Williams