Rows of ripe tomatoes,
pink radishes, ginger and chanterelles beckon hungry shoppers.
Dungeness crabs occasionally move,
alluding to the freshness of the nearby turbot.
Or as you stroll through the market,
And to start, there’s a myriad of terrines and pates to choose from, from foie gras to head cheese.
And, of course, don’t forget the actual cheese.
But as I’ve noted, you’ll usually have to go elsewhere for your bread. On almost any given day, all of this can be found among the covered and roving street markets of Paris and in the supermarkets too.
But as you move from arrondissement to arrondissement, you’ll notice the impeccable presentation is mostly the same but the price varies. Sure there may be an occasional difference here and there, such as a rotisserie chicken dripping over crispy frites at the Marche Raspail in the 6th.
But don’t assume that because you’re not buying your potatoes in a supermarket, you’re buying local.
Gone are the days when country farmers sold their provisions at Les Halles, the central marketplace of Paris since the 1100s. As the city grew and corruption moved in, space was a premium and pricing was an issue. Unsuccessful at attempts to regulate the market, the government decided in 1962 to relocate it to Rungis, on the outskirts of Paris. The new market opened on a limited scale in 1969, and Les Halles was dismantled in 1971. The former location currently consists of an underground shopping mall (a bit horrifying) and will eventually hold an exhibition space, already under construction.
Virtually all of the food that is sold in the street and covered markets of every neighborhood, the supermarkets and the restaurants of Paris comes from Rungis. This compound operates 24 hours a day, although the 1,200 wholesalers tend to sell their goods in the early morning and finish well before noon. The multi-billion euros in commerce occurs through food halls, 10 of which are for fruits and vegetables alone,
cheese, poultry, game, meats and even a hall dedicated to foie gras (which I didn’t get to see).
This “city within a city” is larger than Monaco, and even has on-site restaurants, might be intimidating as a place to shop, but corruption is better controlled, and the quality of the products more easily monitored, especially after an outbreak of Mad Cow disease.
Beef is inventoried electronically on a daily basis. Here are some photos from the meat hall:
And all the cheeses, including the 42 AOC varieties, are inspected. Here are some photos from the cheese hall:
After a trip to Rungis, hopefully you’ll come away with a respect for how the food is handled and packaged, even if shatters some illusions. When you visit the street markets, specialty shops or dine at the trendiest restaurants, you’ll realize that it all seems a bit similar because it is. The pricey, impeccably displayed Camembert in Laurent Dubois has the same label you saw at the covered market in St. Denis and at the Carrefour as on the crates of cheese at Rungis.
Since it’s all the same, you might want to be extra-vigilant at price comparisons when you shop. Or look for the differences in freshness or a few bumps and bruises on fruits and vegetables.
But don’t despair entirely. Although much of the fruit even in the summer comes from Costa Rica and Africa, there’s still an emphasis on local foods in Paris, both at Rungis and in all the markets. Signs display the country of origin, which does seem to matter to consumers.
A few local purveyors who sell within Rungis are known for the quality of their specialty produce, and beef and cheese, as noted in the captions above.
And of course, you can find those oysters from Normandy at the markets just down from pre-cooked, packaged beets (that was new to me, but apparently the Parisians are too busy to spend hours prepping beets). There’s also renewed interest in where food comes from and how food animals are treated. At a market near the Sorbonne, a few young women were handing out info on egg production, advocating for free-range chickens. You might also see protesting against the practice of force-feeding geese and ducks to fatten their livers. Much of this may go unnoticed by the shoppers, including a few food studies students. But with organic food stores popping up all over the city, and an organic street market at the Marche Raspail on Sundays, there’s clearly a demand and a growing trend toward eating local and healthy.
The next time you go shopping, pay attention to how the food is packaged and how much the same items costs where you live from store to store. Is the asparagus for $2 on the street in the middle of winter any different from the $5/lb version in the fancy market? Probably not. Both are from Peru. Marketing plays on our perceptions and ideals. It doesn’t hurt to question exactly where your food comes from no matter where you are in the world.