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No surprise that the world's largest food market is in Paris. For nine centuries, the Rungis Market has supplied Parisians with food from the countryside - and now, from around the world. The abundance of fresh, high-quality products may be one reason why French cuisine has evolved into one of the world's richest - you mean, more than Tex-Mex? Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: It's hard to know where to start when describing the Rungis International Food Market. It's bigger than the principality of Monaco. It has its own beltway and rail stop. It's equipped with banks, hotels, a truck-repair shop and car-rental agencies. Rungis Market is its own city, really, but a city that lives at night.

(Soundbite of truck)

BEARDSLEY: After midnight, trucks begin to roll into Rungis from all corners of Europe. They're loaded with food that was harvested, plucked, shot or slaughtered - often, that very day. From 2 a.m., buyers show up to haggle over the merchandise.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Tempers flare but for the last millennium, the butchers, market vendors and restaurants of Paris have been doing their shopping like this. Eric Deladoire's family has sold seafood at the Rungis Market for three generations.

Mr. ERIC DELADOIRE: (Through translator) French gastronomy comes from these products. It's thanks to the fresh, high-quality food here that French cuisine is so savory, delicious and famous.

BEARDSLEY: Rungis began operating in the year 1110. Up until 1969, it was located in the heart of Paris, at a place called Les Halles.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Writer Emile Zola described Les Halles as the stomach of Paris. Its atmosphere and hubbub were immortalized by photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, and captured in songs and films. The market eventually outgrew its crowded urban quarters, and moved four miles out of the city to the village of Rungis. But the name Les Halles remains mythical.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-one-year-old fish monger Jacqui Lorenzo, who is buying sea urchins and live crabs for his Paris market stall, remembers Les Halles.

Mr. JACQUI LORENZO (Fish Monger): (Through translator) It was extraordinary. When American tourists came to Paris, they didn't ask to see the Eiffel Tower; they asked to see Les Halles. The atmosphere was formidable.

BEARDSLEY: In giant connecting halls, meats and cheeses, fruits, vegetables and flowers regale every sense. Rungis feeds 11 million people in the Paris region every day, as well as supplying markets and restaurants around the world.

Philippe Veral, of the company Fayard Gastronomy, exports to the U.S. and Asia from Rungis. Veral points out what's available in the poultry and wild- game hall.

Mr. PHILIPPE VERAL (Fayard Gastronomy): You have gray partridge. You have red partridge. You have pigeon. You have pheasant. You have venison. You have hare. And you have duck, white duck.

BEARDSLEY: The boxes full of hares and colorfully plumed pheasants are eye-popping, especially for an American used to Saran-wrapped poultry without feet or feathers.

Next door in a giant meat hall, the scene conjures up a 19th century slaughterhouse. Sides of beef swing by on meat hooks, and men carry giant carcasses on their shoulders and backs. Another building is set aside exclusively for offal. That's innards, if you're not familiar with the term.

Serge Nadeau is a third-generation offal dealer. He stands next to a shelf of cow hearts as big as bowling balls. Thick cows' tongues are laid out beside them. But Nadeau says the French don't eat like they used to. Housewives used to cook up veal head at home, he says. Now, people only go out for such dishes.

Mr. SERGE NADEAU (Offal Dealer): We used to sell veal liver with sweetbread, with veal head. I sell, but not the same quantity as 10 years before.

BEARDSLEY: Nadeau wheels out a bin of calf heads, which have been scooped out and look more like pale veal masks.

Mr. NADEAU: That's what you're used to it, with the cheek here - or this part, with the tongues, or the brain.

BEARDSLEY: Tongues and brains are still selling at Rungis, as they have for more than 10 centuries. And though the market has lost much of the antiquated, inner-city charm of Les Halles, it's still the belly of Paris - and a fascinating place to observe one of the world's great food cultures.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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