Jazz Caves and Pig Roasts in the Languedoc

On the way to Caunes-Minervois.
On the way to Caunes-Minervois

On Friday nights in Caunes-Minervois, people come for the pig roast, but they stay for the jazz. There are other places to eat in town, but La Mangeoire is not only charming, it’s an amazing deal: €15 for a hunk of roasted pig, plus dessert and coffee? You won’t find that in Paris. Then again, it’s unlikely you’ll find a pig roast in Paris.

Like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, I don’t dig on swine. So, on the infrequent occasion that I happen to attend a pig roast–and it’s usually in France that I end up at a pig roast––I don’t think “pork.” I think “pig.” Swine, yes. But not pork. Even in France, I don’t think porc––I think cochon.

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If you’ve never chanced to witness a pig roast, it’s a bit of a mess. Flesh, everywhere. A sticky-sweet, burnt smell permeates the air. In French, the verb cochonner means to make a mess of something. I prefer cochonner to cochon itself, but even as a former longtime vegetarian I could appreciate the festive air in the courtyard as diners lined up to watch the pit master (that’s what they call the person who presides over barbecue pits in Texas––I’m unsure if such a term exists for pig roasts) pile their plates with meat. Because it’s France, it’s more of a modest portion than a pile, of course.

A pig skewered and roasted on a spit as people congregate around the flames, waiting to be fed…

Yes, it feels like a Pagan sacrifice. But one has to admit it’s more humane than McDonald’s. At least there is no denial: as you stand there, you are absolutely certain you are eating an animal––that an animal has been slaughtered for your sustenance and your pleasure. Maybe the pig roast somehow pays homage to this morally ambiguous trade-off. If I were a pig, I’d prefer to make my finale this way, rather than winding up wrapped up in plastic and sold as pork chops at the supermarket.

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I was squeamish about taking a photo of the outdoor spit, which I now regret. The pit master, as I shall call him, was a cheerful British expat who seemed to genuinely enjoy serving everyone. He was a pig roast evangelist to the point he almost convinced me to order the €15 jazz formule. Instead, I had a salad. The Americans and the Brits milling about the courtyard seemed relieved to safely partake in excesses of the flesh that were authentically French, yet had nothing to do with extramarital affairs or Gerard Depardieu.

Caunes-Minervois sits in the lush green lowlands at the foot of les Montagnes Noires, or the Black Mountains. If that sounds mysteriously fetching, it is. Part of the Languedoc, this is geographically and historically speaking one of the most enigmatic parts of France.

Languedoc comes from Langue D’Oc, or the Occitan language. While Occitan is now generally considered to be a dialect of French (although locals may not agree) it was the widely spoken language of this part of southern France in the Middle Ages, made famous in literature by the troubadours. Of course, back then, this region did not belong to the French crown, but rather was governed peacefully between the King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse. It was also home to the legendary Cathars: Christians who rejected the lavish accoutrements, tithing, and many of the sacaments of the Roman Catholic Church and were thus considered heretics. In the 13th century, after a brutal 20-year crusade waged by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism, the Languedoc was annexed to the Kingdom of France.

It’s interesting how the language of oppressors becomes institutionalized: while France promotes Cathar Country as an up-and-coming tourist destination, the very word “cathar” was a slang word used as an insult by the Roman Catholic papacy.

On a more frivolous note, when the Romans settled here, they established vineyards and wine-making. “Minervois” probably derives from the Roman goddess Minerva, who, as goddesses go, was a bit of a dilettante: though she might be best known as a goddess of war (like Athena, but probably better at making pizza), she also served time as the goddess of the professions, the arts, and, strangely, handicrafts.

Just imagine: before there was unemployment insurance, before there were job search engines, before there were the want ads and Monster.com and headhunters and unions and LinkedIn, there was Minerva, goddess of the professions. A big job–I doubt she had much time to mess with handicrafts.

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Jazz au Caveau (Jazz in the Cave) is a marvelous place to hang out and drink wine with the locals––everyone and their mother from the whole area seems to come out for the packed shows. Concerts, which run about once a month from September to June, cost €12. Considering a glass of wine costs €2, the Jazz au Caveau is serious cheap date material.

Scratch that. As my friend Colette, an American journalist living in Paris, has oft informed me,  the French do not date. They do many things well: bread, cheese, films, wine, maternity leave, government bureaucracy, mime, and making smoking still look cool. But they do not do dating well.*

*I just went to a disco in Paris and was reminded that they don’t do dancing (not ballet or jazz, but the kind you might do with a cocktail in your hand) all that well, either. And being that most of the clubs I’ve been to the past few years were in the Netherlands, Belgium or the Czech Republic, my standard of what constitutes dancing is suspiciously low. But that is another post.