For most of my childhood, my Dad worked Sunday nights, which meant my sister and I (little bro Jared was not in the picture yet) would take his place in bed and snuggle up next to my mother. Despite not knowing exactly what he did and why he had to do it so late, one thing was certain: When he returned home, say around 5 or 6a.m., he’d scoop us up from under our knees, placing us in the nook of his elbow, and deposit us in our own beds where we’d eventually wake up none the wiser. The older we got, the heavier we became so the scoop-and-deposit became more of a sleep-walking nudge, which I don’t think was as pleasant for him or us. Eventually, we out-grew the weekly ritual entirely.
At some point, our curiosity for where he went and what he did got the better of us and so he took us, separately, on a field trip to explain. I don’t remember much from my early-morning visit to what was then the Fulton Fish Market except that it was dark and, obviously, smelled like fish. In fact, it’d be decades before I truly took an interest in, and acute understanding of, my father’s fourth generation seafood distribution business Norman’s, but I’ll always remember his waking me up and, eventually, tucking me back into bed.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit France’s “Fulton Fish Market” (or Hunts Point, if you will), only there was way more than just fish and, unfortunately, I was on my own for the 3:45a.m. wake-up call. But that didn’t mean my Dad—and the rest of his team over at Norman’s wasn’t with me in spirit during the epic early morning adventure.
It was just before 5a.m. and still dark out when our mini-bus full of press descended upon Rungis, the largest wholesale market in the world and located 4.5 miles outside Paris. After years of being in the center of Paris at the famed Les Halles, the market moved in 1969 in an effort to expand and increase hygiene conditions. Now, covering over 500 acres, it’s so large vendors and visitors alike must drive from section to section. What’s more, all of the halls—especially the fish and meat—are temperature controlled for freshness, which means it didn’t take long for my fingers, toes and the tip of my nose to go numb. Of course, it didn’t help that it happened to be unseasonably cold the day we visited. Like, early morning frost cold.
But despite being bleary-eyed and freezing, it was easy to think about the thousands of night-workers whose manual labor many of us, myself included, take for granted when eating our avocado toasts or linguini with clams. In fact, at Rungis, 13,000 people start their day before dawn and finish long before we’ve had our first sip of coffee.
We began our visit at La Marée, the seafood hall that opens at 2a.m. and closes at 7a.m., which means as we entered in our dorky hair nets, holding our iPhones at the ready for an Instagram snap, these (mostly) men in their wellies and white lab coats—who move and sell over 100,000 tons of fish a year—were at the tail end of their shift. I couldn’t help but smile at the guys playing around on the forklifts, icing boxes of mackerel, thinking of my brother and his crew back at the Norman’s warehouse in Queens. In fact, I planned ahead and wore my Norman’s sweatshirt to represent!
Compared to some of the other perishable markets I’ve been to recently in Southeast Asia, Rungis was in a league of its own. It was clean, well-lit and seemed proficiently-run. I’m not sure if it was because it was late in the shift, or if most of the orders are placed over the phone now, but there seemed to be less buyers milling about than I expected. We were told, though, that while every product generally has a price (often by the box, not per piece), none are marked so there’s a lot of wheelin’ and dealin’ amongst the 48 sellers in the seafood sector.
We saw all types of fish—either whole or gutted and filleted—in styrofoam boxes, ready to be sold wholesale to restaurants nearby and far away. In total, only 20-percent of the fish at Rungis comes from local seas, whereas the rest is imported from countries around the world. I even caught a bag of cockles from Japan. (Fun fact: Norman’s is the premiere distributor of New Zealand cockles in the Eastern United States so if you’ve eaten a cockle in those parts, Norman’s helped get it to your belly!)
We moved onto the meat section where we saw whole cow’s heads hung on meat hooks, pig’s hoofs in giant containers and lots of innards in sealed plastic bags. It was definitely enough to make a carnivore rethink her diet. Also, THE SMELL. I didn’t take as many photos in there because, well, it’s not pleasant. But here’s one for the Rocky fans.
After meat came poultry and other birds or game animals like rabbits and lamb. Again, I’ll spare you the very icky truth of what titillates so many of our tastebuds.
Things got cheesier from there as we entered the dairy section. We saw lots of eggs and yogurts and, of course, curds. This was around 7a.m., which meant I’d been up for about four hours so my stomach was starting to growl—especially when we were taken underground into a cheese cave to see giant wheels of emmental, cantal and comté. I suspect if I attempted to bite into one I’d have broken my jaw. These were legit THE BIG CHEESE.
Finally, as the sun continued to rise, we entered the produce halls. Fruits and veggies make up 69 percent of the market with a total of nine halls that turn over around $3.25 billion produce annually. The first one we entered featured just local producers, which meant there were only seasonal produce and herbs.
Then, we went into a giant hall filled with fruit and veggies from all over the world. Boxes and boxes of lemons and tomatoes and garlic and mango and passion fruit and strawberries—white ones, too! It was super busy as this was peak produce hour, so we were dodging forklifts left and right.
Somehow, my group missed out on the flower hall, which was a bummer since we started out the day so stanky (fish! meat! cheese!). It would’ve been nice to end a more fragrant note.
But that’s OK. After digging into a plate of cheese and fruit—all fresh from the market—I had a date with my bed. Thankfully, there were no little people to scoop-and-deposit when I zombie-collapsed into it. Which is to say, I’ve got major respect for my Dad who, back then and still now, continues to lift and carry even when the job is done.
Individual and group tours of Rungis can be arranged through Cultival.