A Taste for the Local

By: Katie Petersen

At 4 a.m., as boxes of fish were transported through the warehouse and the display areas along the main corridor sat largely empty, it appeared that the merchants were preparing to open the fish market. But no: “They’re wrapping up,” informed Bérengère Banquey, head of Public Affairs and Governance for Marche de Rungis, the largest wholesale market in the world. The wholesale buyers of Paris have already purchased their fish for the day, and it is now en route to cafés, restaurants, and seafood sellers all over the city.

Rungis, which sits on the outskirts of Paris now, was housed in the center of the city under the name Les Halles in the 12th century. It was called the “Belly of Paris” by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris, set in the 18th century. With the rise of the supermarket in the 20th century, the central market was declared unhealthy, disorganized, and too small. It was moved to its current location in the beginning of the seventies, according to Banquey. The market is now largely hidden from public view, and all visitors must have a special pass to enter the facilities. Today, people miss being able to see the sources of their food, says Joanna Beaufoy, a research assistant in Paris.

Supermarkets, therefore, aren’t the place to shop for many. “As a Parisian, you would never buy your produce from the supermarket, because it’s just plain bad and expensive compared to so many other options,” Beaufoy claims.

Rungis distributes mostly to smaller sellers, like independent produce stands. The supermarkets have their own distribution markets, Banquey says. Sometimes, they pay to use the storage facilities at Rungis, and even purchase food from the market. But not often.

For the most part, Banquey says, “you come to Rungis if you’re a restaurant, and you want to have really good food.”

The model that Rungis operates on is favorable for quality, according to Banquey. She explains, “it’s about what the consumer wants to buy instead of what the supermarket wants to sell.”

This also leads to greater traceability. The market was not subjected to the 2013 horse meat scandal, in which many products labeled as beef were found to in fact contain horse, because, as Banquey says, “the process is completely transparent.”

A butcher in the veal district confirmed Banquey. “Traceability,” he says, “is to follow the veal from the slaughterhouse to the customer.” The butcher not only knows from where his meat is sourced, but plays an active role in preparing it. He visits farms, examines livestock, and notifies farmers of what products he’s planning on selling six months in advance.

He says the model also leads to greater customer involvement. “Sometimes the customer wants a special cut, and we cut what they need.”

Some (Americans) might be put off by the transparency in food sources – the enthusiastic butchers surrounded by fresh, red meat. However, when asked among the hanging carcasses if she was shocked by anything when she began working at Rungis, Banquey answered simply: “No.”

She allowed, “But I’m French.”

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