The hardest thing about visiting the wholesale market of Rungis is to get up at 3.30 am in order to see the fish market « La Marée », before it closes at 5 am. Stéphane Layani, the flamboyant President of this huge 500 acre large market, is a fascinating character who remembers you first name!
He takes friends and politics on tours once a week, and seems to be always enjoying himself. His right hand lady, Frédérique Wagon and the general manager Dominique Batani, are both also exceptional. It is in the nature of the place to have strong men (and a few women) to hold the fort. For 12 000 cars and trucks and 25 000 people come through this special city every day, at very specific times and on tight schedules.
What particularly struck me were the timings : deliveries from all over France are made between 10 pm and 2 am. By plane, by truck (truck drivers are tough men, we all know, so that’s not a problem !) but also by train, from Perpignan for example. Rungis is located at a crossing of motorways and has its own railstation and airport in Orly.
The fish market, opens at 2 am and closes at 5 am. Not so easy for the people who work there… and when we arrived to see the live lobsters and the huge Sword Fish, everything was already being cleaned. A very large merchant Reynaud is next to a one person company, Besnard, since 35 years. They each have their specialty and their clients. All stores are rented from Semmaris the company that manages Rungis, the land belongs to the State and huge amounts of money are exchanged every day with very small margins and large volumes.
Which means that all the sales people have to be very shrewd managers. No prices are ever publicized, each sale is a one to one agreement.
In every area of Rungis, meat, fruit and vegetable, etc… things are developed to help customers who own restaurants, small stores or market stands in and near Paris, but also for export to foreign countries such as Italy, Germany, Belgium and Great Britain who import directly from Rungis.
We walked through the Tripes pavilion where a Tête de veau was being prepared in front of us and through the meat pavilion, probably the most impressive visually with whole carcasses full of blood.
I was surprised to see lots of boxes of meat imported from Great Britain : angus beef is very much in demand…Poultry and game, milk and cheeses of course, the largest « cheese plate » in the world as Stéphane Layani described it, and when you enter the cellar where Conté, Emmental and Cantal are kept, a lovely smell emerges. The wheels of conté can weigh 80 kg and they are a splendor. (one needs 10 l of milk for 1 kg of conté)
We then visited the new organic pavilion inaugurated in May by President Hollande, where I met one of the only woman who owns a business in Rungis, charming Pauline Soulier, and her father Didier, in their Maison Bio Sain, and we moved on to the vegetable and fruit huge pavilions. There, millions of cherries and fresh salads and tiny potatoes from Brittany were awaiting us.What a beautiful show of colors!
We stopped at Café St Hubert for a much needed coffee with croissants after starting our race again. Four hours of walking and “busing” through Rungis, is one of the toughest morning calls I ever got. Even going to the Radio at 6 am and having to be smart and clever on air, was less demanding !
I had often heard of the hardness of people who started their professional lives at the Halles, as delivery boys or carrying meat. Now I understand exactly what it means, to start work every morning at 3 or 4 am. Like Pauline Soulier who starts at 5 until 1 pm and spends the afternoon putting in orders, and following payments, all of the Rungis employees and businessmen are incredibly resistant and tough people.
The world of night workers is something of a mystery to most of us, uncovering it was personally fascinating. Stéphane Layani projects to open similar wholesale markets in Moscow and maybe in Dubaï. He is often referred to as the king of Rungis, a town larger than Monaco, with 12 000 employees who work in 3° centigrade pavilions and are active from 3 am to 1 pm. And he is loved by everyone we meet… partly because he is there every day.
We finished with the flower pavilion where 190 million flowers are sold every year. Most products come from the Paris area and a sad peonies salesman told us about having his flowers stolen from his fields at night. Another hard life.
The visit was concluded by a fabulous breakfast at 8.30. Tête de veau, all sorts of charcuterie and cheeses with fruit salad. It took me a whole day to recover but I feel like I have lived a unique experience.
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