Nathan has been a regular contributor to The Information Daily, The Sunday Times, BBC Radio 4, Television Today, Design Week and a number of technical and business publications including Public Service Digital.

Clogs, Pigs and Calvados

In business, as in life, the only thing that is constant is change. In 1938 Paul Chaume owned a small-holding in the Côte-d'Or in central France. His life, in a lost valley sandwiched between Champagne and Burgundy, was perfect. He had a wife and daughter. His business model and lifestyle were founded on certainties that had existed, unchanged, for hundreds of years.

Paul had enough land to keep a few cows. They kept hens and geese. And they reared pigs which Paul slaughtered himself bartering the carcases to the local butcher for a supply of charcuterie some of which they ate and some of which he sold.

Paul also made clogs, for in 1938 many farmers and labourers still wore clogs to work. The clogs generated some useful cash. And he had 70 apple trees set out on terraces climbing the hill behind his house. Building the terraces had been started by his great-grandfather and improved and expanded by each succeeding generation. The terraces used land that otherwise would never be productive. Paul sold or bartered some of the apples, fed some to his family and fed the windfalls to his pigs. But most of the apples he pressed and made into cider and most of the cider he distilled into brandy in a still that stood in a small shed behind the clog workshop. Calvados in all but région d'origine. 

The distilling was completely legal for Paul's family had the historic right to distil spirits traditionally granted to one family in each French village. He paid no duty on this homemade aquavit. By law he could sell his calvados within the village but not ship it for sale outside the village boundaries. This restriction controlled both the volume of calvados produced and the price Paul could charge. The regulation of this antique system was extremely light touch and there were "refinements" to the system that no one bothered to regulate. The distilling family in the next village, by a wonderful coincidence, did not make their calvados from apples but instead grew and processed pears. Each year Paul would swap half his production for half his neighbour's production. No money changed hands, no tax was due, no law was broken but Paul had a wider range of products to enjoy and to offer his captive market.

His life was built on certainties. His right to distil went back hundreds of years. Farm workers always needed clogs. Pigs processed rubbish into meat and money. Half his living and the wonderful lifestyle that came with it involved no monetary transaction and therefore did not need to bother the taxman.

In May 1940 Paul Chaume, fighting for France, was taken prisoner by the German army advancing on Paris. He didn't see his wife Cecile and their daughter Helene for nearly six years. When the German surrender came in May 1945 he was working, as forced labour, in a forest in the north of Westphalia. He was safe and quite fit though three or four stone under-weight. It took him six months to walk home.

For a while he rested then tidied up the workshop and began to think about making clogs again. Sitting at the workbench on a tall stool he had made for himself, with the clog in the picture above in his hands, he looked out of the workshop window at the people of his village as they walked to the fields. Each of them, he noticed, wore army boots, good quality army boots, taken from the piles of surplus boots left behind all over Europe as the soldiers had died and gone to their graves or survived and gone home.

The clog business had disappeared in five short cataclysmic years. And all too soon the French state and the European Common Market would frame laws designed to stop the untaxed, unregulated production of alcohol and the keeping and slaughtering of a few, hand reared, pigs was rendered no longer viable by changes to the health and safety laws.

Paul's small family business was history and the proof, if proof were needed, came in the 1990s when the curators of the French national museum service came and dismantled the workshop and the still room and took it all to Paris where it was reassembled and exhibited in a showroom window on one of the Grands Boulevards all sponsored by Crédit Agricole

In business as in life the only thing that is certain is uncertainty, the only constant is change.