FRANCE: Plump turkeys adorned with red ribbons, proud capons trussed up in tinsel -- the finest poultry is again the star of the show as French cooks shop for Christmas in Paris' biggest market.
While the French capital sleeps, a vast fleet of trucks and delivery vans perform a ballet in the freezing mist, shipping vast quantities of meat, cheese, vegetables and delicacies to the city's shops and restaurants.
Rungis market is almost a city in its own right, spread over 234 hectares (578 acres), and Christmas its busiest season. The 120,000 tonnes of food that pass through its alleys in December account for a quarter of its annual trade.
French families traditionally enjoy a lavish evening meal on December 24, Christmas Eve, and -- along with oysters -- birds are a centrepiece: geese, turkeys, chickens, game birds or capons, stuffed with sweet chestnuts.
This year, the must-have bird is the goose, but, as poultry seller Gino Catena warns, wrapped up against the pre-dawn chill in his bright red anorak:
“It's an animal which is relatively pricey per kilo.” With France in the grip of financial crisis, he recommends thrifty shoppers opt for a “poularde” a fattened chicken raised like its male cousin the capon but smaller, weighing in at around 2.5 kilos (five pounds eight ounces).
Foie gras -- the liver of a force-fed goose or in this case duck -- is considered a luxury in most of the world, but Catena says that in France this year it's “actually very affordable”, prices having tumbled 10 per cent.
Christmas is of course a Christian festival, but France's large Muslim minority need not miss out on the feasting at least, the suppliers now all carry halal turkeys, slaughtered according to Islamic rite.
When Paris' food market was still in the crowded town centre alleyways around Les Halles, it was notorious as a place of chaos and dirt, but the wholesale halls in Rungis are spotless and antiseptic.
Workers mill around in hygienic white uniforms and only occasional pearls of bright red blood mark the scrubbed floors.
Some stalls specialise in big volume sale, others in luxury. At the firm Masse, foie gras and truffles are flying off the shelves despite the mood of economic foreboding hanging over the country at large.
-- Eat something decent --
“The year-end festivities are very important in the lives of the French.
They're used to spending on food, which remains sacred,” says owner Frederic Masse, sorting a batch of truffles at 1,300 euros ($1,700) the kilo (2.2 pounds).
Seafood of all sorts in another big seller, but particularly oysters -- a French Yuletide tradition that was threatened this year by a deadly virus which ravaged crops in beds around the French coast.
Prices have soared, by between 20 and 40 per cent, but demand is high.
“People will always stand by the high-end luxury products. If you're going to enjoy yourself, you might as well eat something decent,” says Thierry Maia, oyster trader with the supplier Reynaud.
His tip to save money: Dutch oysters. “There's a good quality to price ratio, even if we French are sometimes pretty chauvinist about these things.”In the vast polystyrene crates that line the fish hall, huge king crabs from the cruel Alaskan waters of the Bering Strait lie alongside Arctic char -- more refined than trout or salmon -- and row upon row of swordfish.
The fork-lifts unloading the refrigerated trucks can barely keep up.
“Scallops, prawns, lobster, shrimp... In two hours everything was sold!”grins fishmonger Pascal Pean. “Last week it was tougher, with the storm, but the boats are back at sea now, and there'll be enough for the holidays.”The clock turns 7:00 am. In the city beyond, French men and women are waking to coffee and croissants, but in Rungis the night's work is almost done, for the tradesmen in any case.
The waiters in the Cafe Saint-Aubert still have their hands full -- and their heads covered in novelty Santa hats -- serving rounds of ham sandwiches and beer to the tired workers.