Root cellars, the ancient technology that makes year round enjoyment of fresh produce possible, are currently experiencing a rediscovery, but not merely because of the pleasures of eating self-grown food, but also because of the actual possibility of reducing expenses and providing for significant food storage in times of potential trouble.
Native Australians were the first people to take advantage of the cooling and insulative properties of buried foodstuffs in the earth. Records indicate that over 40,000 years ago they grew large amounts of yams and developed the technique of burying their produce in order to preserve it for future use. In the process, they also discovered the phenomenon of fermentation, and ever since, alcoholic beverages have been a large portion of those products stored in underground repositories.
Underground storage facilities from the Iron Age have been discovered, and the Etruscans commonly buried their immature wine, but the actual use of walk-in root cellars as a means to prolong the freshness of fruit and vegetable crops was probably an invention that occurred in 17th century England. It might seem surprising that the great civilizations of China and Egypt did not develop root cellars, but the Chinese were the masters of food preservation via salting, pickling and the additions of spices; the Egyptians, residents of an arid environment, were the masters at drying food. It took the right combination of cool winters and hungry Englishmen to finally invent the concept of root cellars.
Certainly the most notable practitioners of root-cellar arts were the early colonists that arrived in North America from the United Kingdom. The eastern halves of America and Canada contain thousands of old root cellars, and the small Newfoundland town of Elliston actually claims the title of “Root Cellar Capital of the World,” and boasts of over 135 root cellars, some dating back 200 years.
The basis of all root cellars is their ability to keep food cool. They were, essentially, the first refrigerators. A well-insulated root cellar can keep the food inside 40 degrees cooler than the summertime temperatures outside. This coolness also has benefits during the winter, as maintaining food at a temperature just slightly above freezing has the effect of slowing deterioration and rot. Temperatures inside the home, even in basements, are noticeably warmer, so food stored inside the house has a tendency to spoil much more rapidly than food stored in a cooler root cellar. Temperatures above 45 degrees F cause toughness in most stored vegetables, and encourage undesirable sprouting and considerably more rapid spoilage.
What can you plan on storing in your root cellar once you build it? Certainly, many of us probably have visions of root cellars in the 19th century, packed with bushels of apples and sacks full of potatoes. Today’s root cellars are really not much different, and potatoes and apples are two eminently storable farm products. But the problem with that pair is that they don’t really go well together. Apples have a tendency to emit ethylene gas, which causes problems for potatoes stored nearby, and will also make any exposed carrots or other root crops bitter. As a matter of fact, many fruits, including plums, pears and peaches, and some vegetables, such as tomatoes, cabbage and Chinese cabbage, are also notorious ethylene producers.
In addition to raw produce, root cellars are excellent locations for a number of other foodstuffs as well. The previously mentioned beverages, like wine, cider and beer, all enjoy the cool, dark environment of a root cellar. Cured meats, like ham, bacon and other smoked meats store very well in temperatures below 40 degrees F. Milk, cream, butter and cheese all appreciate the environment of root cellars. Grains and nuts store very well in root cellars, but require extra precautions against insects, and must be sealed tightly to be secure. Dried and canned foods also keep well, provided they are kept either in less humid cellars, or in separate, drier compartments.
Fresh vegetables and fruits last different lengths of time when stored in a root cellar, but potatoes probably last the longest among vegetables; apples among fruit. Other good keepers include cabbage, beets, kohlrabi, onions, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, pumpkins and turnips. Beans, nuts and dried peppers are very long keepers.
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