The Food Storage Secret Our Grandparents Knew

My article about the rise of the root cellar (below) was first published by The Globe and Mail on  Wed, Nov. 03, 2010. The readers comments on the Globe’s site are  a wonderful window into how Canadians relate to their veg! How great to hear from so many readers across the country!

They tuck them into the cold corners of urban basements. They put them in drafty cupboards in their downtown apartments. Some even dig them into their suburban backyards.

More than half a century after the mass proliferation of refrigerators and supermarkets, a new generation of Canadians are bringing root cellars back into their homes. And whether they want to eat local all winter or just save money, they’re spreading the message with blogs, campaigns and how-to workshops across the country.

But reviving the old practice isn’t always easy. When Louise Hanavan and her partner, with help from friends, wanted to transform the basement crawl space in their Halifax home into a root cellar, they first had to carve a shelf out of the rock the house was built on. “It was slate in there. We dug with pickaxes,” she said. “It was like a mining project.”

They now store their preserves in the space, as well as their potatoes and carrots – in a wire cage to protect them from rodents. Their hard work has paid off, Ms. Hanavan says. “We buy butter and toilet paper at the grocery store. We have what we need here.”

Pierre Clouthier, who lives on a rural property in Nova Scotia, hired a contactor to build a root cellar to store enough apples, beets, potatoes, carrots and parsnips to feed him and his wife from November to April.

“I’m not a survivalist fringe nut,” he says, but he is concerned about “peak oil” and buys from local farmers to support regional agricultural infrastructure. To build the root cellar, he needed a backhoe to dig a hole in the earth. He then built an 8-by-8-foot room with cinder blocks, leaving the earth floor bare and two ventilation holes to allow air circulation and prevent mould growth. The domed roof was made of poured concrete, the arched design allowing condensation to drip down the walls rather than onto the produce below. The project cost him $3,500.

“I went overboard, but I wanted to make sure it was good quality,” he says.

A root cellar preserves food because it is both cool and humid – the soil underground keeps the space above freezing temperature and the moisture in the air prevents vegetables such as carrots from losing water and becoming rubbery.

“It’s basically a passive refrigerator,” says Bruce March, a Toronto architect who has been commissioned to design a home with a basement root cellar. His design includes designated shelves in specific areas of the cellar for preserving foods at different temperatures and humidities.

But you don’t necessarily need an architect or a sizable investment. Melanie Epp, who blogs about eating locally from her home on the outskirts of Guelph, Ont., simply used a cold room in her basement last year to store her winter provisions. She was inspired in part by her grandfather’s root cellar in Northern Ontario, which was a deep hole in the ground fitted with a pulley system that cranked a shelf with food to the surface.

In Newfoundland, root cellars built from soil, stones and wood have been part of the culture for centuries because they were the only way to keep enough vegetables, salted meat and cod to get people through long, wet winters. In some villages there were even communal root cellars.

With modern-day food distribution, the old ways have been disappearing, says Kristie Jameson, executive director of the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, a non-profit advocacy group. But the risks of depending on long-distance food were underlined in September, when Hurricane Igor swept away roads and left some communities without access to a supermarket. This summer, Ms. Jameson’s organization launched a campaign called Root Cellars Rock to encourage people to revive old methods of storing local food for the winter.

Advocates also say that root cellars save money because people can buy in bulk at the height of the season, and argue that cellaring is the simplest way of storing food.

Steve Maxwell, co-author of The Complete Root Cellar Book, published earlier this year, has used one at his home on Manitoulin Island for 20 years. He says a root cellar heightens the home gourmet experience by providing the opportunity to keep locally grown vegetables all winter, including heritage varieties such as purple carrots and red chieftain potatoes.

“It’s the food equivalent of the wine cellar,” he says.

Then there’s the satisfaction of being self-sufficient. When Mr. Clouthier trudges through the snow to his root cellar to bring back potatoes and carrots to his wife, he swells with pride.

“It’s like a stack of firewood, true wealth,” he says. “You can provide for your family. It’s very rewarding.”