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Why Victorian-style larders are making a comeback in English homes

The Victorian equivalent of a refrigerator is seeing an uptick in UK adoption, thanks to rising food prices, aesthetic appeal and interest in energy efficiency

The ideal larder is compact, north-facing and cool. (Niki Nagy, Pexels)

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In the 1907 edition of culinary bible Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, the author sets out her advice for an ideal larder. There must of course be “thorough ventilation,” the reader is told. The larder is also “the only room in the house that should always face due north, so that the sun never comes in.”

The Victorian equivalent of a refrigerator, a 1900s larder amounted to a room or cupboard for food storage, with rudimentary temperature-control measures. From a necessity standpoint, it was superseded by electric fridges in the 20th century. Today, though, the larder is staging a comeback in the UK, spurred by rising food prices, lifestyle trends, and interest in curtailing power use. Call it the energy-efficiency aesthetic: A larder won’t necessarily reduce electricity consumption, and can certainly be filled with store-bought goods. But the rustic-curious consumer is keen on a cold store that harkens back to root cellars of yore, with home-grown potatoes and mushrooms on stone shelves. 

“This is something people remember from their grandfather or grandmother, that they used to have an old limestone cellar in the backyard where they used to keep all the jam and apples,” says Helar Laur, head of sales at Estonia-based Revonia, which makes underground modular root cellars' that can be used to store vegetables, wine and jam without mechanical cooling. “Now people are getting more into lifestyle as well. It’s more and more about growing your own vegetables and eating fresh organic food.”

Revonia’s UK branch manager, Jaan Talvet, says high energy prices in Europe have driven recent interest in its energy-efficient underground vaulted rooms, both for food storage and living space. A 20-square-meter living space starts at £50,000, while a wine or root cellar costs around £15,000 to £16,000. Talvet says inquiries shot up during the summer heat wave, particularly as customers chasing off-grid living sought to combine a root cellar with solar panels, battery storage and heat pumps.    

Root cellars have a long tradition in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, but Laur says interest now comes from all over the world, including the US, Mexico and Kenya. New customers have myriad motivations: Some see potential in insulating their living space and food supply from heat waves, storms and hurricanes. The trend for homemade beer, wine and preserves is also driving demand, as is the quest for a “man cave” that barely needs heating in the winter or cooling in the summer. 

Douglas Pryce, 55, had a wine cellar installed in his coach house in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, last year. He mostly uses it to store cheese, but is also planning an underground gym. “We’ve had torrential rain and it’s as dry as a bone,” he says. “The thermal value in the summer and the winter is phenomenal. We’ve got down to about 0C and it didn’t feel cold at all.”

Floris Schoonderbeek, a Dutch inventor, has been in the high-tech larder business for a decade. He first developed the GroundFridge — a €15,900 ready-made underground natural fridge that comes with its own solar panel to power mechanical ventilation — to serve a growing market of gardeners and restaurants looking for natural cold storage.  This year he’s experienced more interest from people concerned about the cost of grid energy. Schoonderbeek’s newer clients include a Parisian “prepper” who bought three GroundFridges to store his post-apocalypse supply of wine and food, but most of the roughly 30 fridges he sells each year go to more mundane customers: allotment growers who want a communal on-site store for their produce, or farmers trying new ways of cooling. 

“It’s like looking back to the future,” Schoonderbeek said. “We learned from the past, when we did things locally because we didn’t have technology or money to do differently. In history we were really smart with local sources, and we lost that a bit.”

From the 16th century onwards in Britain, small rooms became more common in grand households, which might have had, for example, a scullery for dishwashing, a pantry for dry goods and a larder for cold storage. Sara Pennell, an associate professor of early modern British history at the University of Greenwich in London, and author of The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850, says larders have always been somewhat of a luxury item. Some households would separate dry, wet and meat larders, and larger homes also used underground ice houses. In the US at the time, root cellars were ubiquitous, made so by settlers who borrowed the concept from the Dutch and Germans.

Over time, evidence suggests that storage rooms became more common among middle-class families in the UK, particularly as groceries like tea and rice became more affordable. They were eventually supplanted by lead-lined cold boxes and then refrigerators, as central heating in the 20th century made it difficult to keep food naturally cool indoors. By the time the 1907 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s book came out, a zinc-lined chest had already become “very necessary” in order to “ensure both comfort and economy, and, indeed, promote good health in the summer.”

After a 21st century detour into open-plan living, modern homeowners are increasingly returning to having several small rooms, says Merlin Wright, design director of high-end kitchen fitters Plain English, headquartered in a Georgian mansion in the Suffolk countryside. Image-conscious dinner party hosts are looking for ways to hide their clutter, and larders appeal to those nostalgic for simpler food storage. A compact underground cold store was also featured at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2022, the most prestigious festival of British garden design — and a good barometer for incoming gardening and sustainability trends. 

“I think a lot of people prefer the old-fashioned idea that you store things properly and carefully rather than shove them in a plastic box,” Wright says. “Lots of our clients really like cooking. They are going to the trouble, so they probably don’t want a bag full of things in a plastic tray in a fridge, and then you find that they’ve started to rot.”

The ideal larder is — like Mrs. Beeton said — compact, north-facing and cool, with a small window covered with mesh for ventilation, and to keep flies out. Ideally there are stone shelves to keep food cool, and the larder must be separated from any central heating system. Storing vegetables and other produce out of the fridge improves taste as well as shelf-life, Wright notes, adding that “it’s unpleasant eating cold cheese.”

When David Stevenson, 57, an entrepreneur, renovated his Victorian family home on the south coast of England, he wanted the kitchen to be at the center of the house, where he and his family regularly entertain. But Stevenson also wanted a separate cool space to allow for the storage of produce like root vegetables and mushrooms outside the fridge. The family’s “pantry,” which was installed by Plain English, is fitted with marble shelves and a sliding door, and is the only part of the house that isn’t heated.

“You can really tell the difference in temperature,” he says. “It stays cool in the summer, it’s relatively cool in the winter, even when the heating is on. It’s a beautiful space, but still tucked away and enclosed and private.”

 

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