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The Gigantic, Secretive Market Where Frances Top Chefs Buy Their Food Matter Medium

Its pitch-black out and were telling the cab driver to hurry. The moonlight draws a path in front of us as we glide through Paris at 4:30 a.m. Were just in time to make the bus, which runs only once a monthand always leaves early. Its almost like it wants to be missed.

After passing through two security checkpoints, we finally arrive at the center of the Rungis International Market. Its only 30 minutes outside the French capital, and its the largest wholesale market in the world. But ask most Parisians if theyve heard of it, and theyre likely to shrug and shake their heads.

(Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons)

Three hours earlier, at around two in the morning, buyers from some of the worlds biggest restaurants, hotel chains, and grocery stores had come through to make their daily purchases of meat, fish, vegetables, and flowers. Once they were done, smaller shops and restaurantsthe ones who cant afford the premier passcame in take their pick from the leftovers. I was one of a handful from outside the industry allowed in to look around.

Until 1969, Frances wholesale market was in Les Halles, a much smaller space in the center of Paris. It was centrally located but incredibly unhygienicperhaps mile Zola was thinking about guts when he called it the belly of Paris. But then, the market set up just outside the city in an area known as Rungis, near Orly airport. Now, its 573 acres are home to more than 11,000 workers, supporting more than 1,000 businesses from doctors to insurance salesmen to travel agents.

(Courtesy Rungis International Market)

Its like a village, says Laurent Matera, who works for Rungis. Were really a big family. Really big.

In fact, its so big that we were obliged to take a bus from warehouse to warehouse.

I started where the fish are flayed in 45 seconds flat, then frozen and sold. The only lights come from the waxing moon and the fluorescent lights whose glow bounces off the slippery floors. Middle-aged white men move around in white aprons, attending to final details before leaving for the day. In one corner, crates full of swordfish are being stacked. In another, boxes with names of well-known Parisian restaurants are readied for shipment.

(Courtesy the author)

Outside the meat warehouse, a man stands quietly smoking and looking off into the distance. His eyes glaze over as he looks onto the seemingly infinite parking lot. Every few minutes a coworker in a bloodstained apron comes outside for a smoke break and a handshake is extended, but no words are exchanged. Its 6 a.m. now. Animal slaughter is tiring business.

(Courtesy the author)

In the shiny warehouse, pig and cow carcasses are hung on stainless steel hooks, blood pooling beneath their hooves. Matera informs me that part of the interview process for working in the meat warehouse is the ability to carry a 220-pound animal carcass over the shoulder. As I leave, I see a man strolling down the silver corridor carrying two.

(Martin Bureau/Getty)

Then to the cheese warehouse, where giant wheels of Gruyre and Emmental are stacked atop one another to entice restaurant buyers; followed by the vegetables warehouse, where leeks and ginger and asparagus and kale sit in wooden boxes littered throughout the room; and then, finally, to the flowers warehouse, where asters and callas and carnations and dahlias and hyacinths and peonies and poinsettias burst with reds and pinks and blues and purples in a wonderful display.

Its only after seeing all of the warehouses that you realize the immense power that Rungis holds over the French food industry.

(Bloomberg/Getty)

Popular weekend food markets all over Paristhe Place de la Bastille, the Boulevard Raspail, or the Boulevard Richard-Lenoiralmost all buy from Rungis. The variety of markets in France only gives the illusion of choice: In fact 65% of all food products from Rungis go straight to the Paris region. Many end up packaged and promoted in different ways to make it seem like theyre coming from different sources.

(Courtesy Rungis International Market)

Its not just Paris that Rungis holds sway over, though. The market accounts for one-third of all Frances produce exports, and annual revenues often top 8.8 billion euros ($11.2 billion). Its the heartbeat of the French food industry.

But could it be slowing down? Recently President Hollande announced plans to sell the governments stake. That decision may partly be symbolic of a decline in French cuisineovertaken by Spains wild experimentation or Americas more inventive chefsbut its also reflective of the reality of politics. For Hollande its a last-ditch attempt to court business, boost the French economy and appeal to conservative opponents. Whatever the case, it throws Rungis long-term future into doubt.

(Fred Dufour/Getty)

Right now, though, things just keep ticking over. By the time we finished exploring, many of Rungis thousands of workers had just completed their midnight-to-noon workday, and many had begun to walk over to one of the dozen brasseries for breakfast.

After an eight-hour night shift of hacking carcasses and flaying fish, it wasnt a wonder that the workers looked like zombies, their eyes faint and their backs bent, as they strode across the parking lot.

Whatever happens to Rungis, maybe its really not a surprise at all that so few people know about this place. After all, although you may like to eat sausage, it becomes a little less tasty if you learn how its made.

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