...Continued from page 1

photo, salmon direct from norwaySomebody's forgotten salmon.

The bus parked somewhere and we all got out and put on white smocks made out of that untearable material used for wrapping new TV sets. Cute little caps went along with this getup, and we looked like a gang of shabby ghosts lost in a parking lot. Our guide Dominique introduced us to our English–speaking guide, Charles.

They immediately said there was to be no smoking and promptly lit up, "Except for us!" We shuffled off the see the fish barn. It was very big but mostly empty. Fish arrives at it, from everywhere, at 8 in the evening, and then the dealers show up, followed by the buyers, and all that is left at 5 in the morning is dregs. The hall was impressively big though.

Next we got back in the bus and drove around a building and got out to see the scrap meat department. This had all sorts of gory stuff, heads, bones and other unidentifiable parts. Rungis is not a slaughterhouse – that is done elsewhere away from curious eyes. Rungis is a distribution centre. Everything ready to prepare or eat comes here and then ships out to lesser distributors, wholesalers, food chains, restaurants and shops.

It used to be done in the centre of Paris at Les Halles but its 12 hectares proved too hemmed in so General De Gaulle decreed that the whole shebang needed to move to Rungis, where it now occupies 232 hectares, most of it a parking lot. Well, 25,000 cars and trucks pass through it every day including 3000 semi–trailer rigs.

photo, sign, creme de caramel, hummm

Some people were keeping notes while Charles rattled off these big numbers. Workers at Rungis, 13,000. Regular buyers number 20,000. Market served includes 18 million inhabitants, a fifth of the French population. The place shifted 1.6 million tons of mostly food but also flowers, in 2004. The whole ball of wax was worth 7.1 billion euros in 2005. My eyelids got heavier.

There wasn't a lot to see in the new, modern, sanitary version of the cow barn. Since mad cow everything has been cleaned up, straightened out, fixed, computerized, tagged, fingerprinted, communicated and over all it is watched with spy cameras, so don't try anything funny like eating something. You see more meat at the local butchers but hear less.

Between each of these buildings – all kilometres long – we had the bus for transport, but climbing in and out of it began to sap our reserves. All the same we had to look at the hall – one of eight – of cut flowers, which were, or course, cut and mostly gone. I've skipped the cheese here. It was another huge building full of cardboard cartons full of cheese plus a couple of rounds of emmenthaler.

As it was getting light about 8:30 it was anything but bright on account of overcast. This just added to the feeling of queasy giganticism coupled with hunger and thirst. Yet again into the bus and another circling of what seemed to be vaguely familiar jumbo hangers, and then we were deposited next to one of Rungis' many restaurants. They look like road houses out in the country, partly because of the parking lots, mostly because they aren't fancy.

photo, beef steak, peppercorns, cooked by uncle den den More meat on the table, yum!

On the program was breakfast which many thought had been forgotten. So then, we straggled through a smoky bar where some Halles types were knocking off beers and cognacs, and into a large dining room, with tablecloths of all things.

The tour, for individuals, is not cheap. Up to you to decide if the breakfast makes up for it. Including a carafe of red wine, it featured just about everything I have ever seen on a decent buffet, except maybe grilled sardines. And if you wanted more, you got it. I mean, it was Rungis after all. And no, I didn't see any onion soup but that doesn't mean there wasn't any.

Should you be tempted, check out the Visit Rungis Web site for details about the visit, but don't forget that the starting time is 5 am. It will remain with me forever.

A bientôt à Paris
signature, regards, ric

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