Larders and pantries are no longer commonplace, so this month John Mason and his ACS team consider the requirements for an effective and traditional place to store your food
Larders were common in British homes before the widespread use of mechanical refrigeration in the 1960s. They then fell out of favour and all but disappeared by the late 1980s. Most people who grew up before this time will have some recollection of larders, but what were they really like?
Larders were typically a cool, ventilated room adjacent to the kitchen, about the size of a very small bedroom, with floor-to-ceiling shelving on at least one wall. More shelving would be scattered throughout, with a bench top usually somewhere to be found. This may have been a cold slab of slate stone or granite, but was often simply a wooden surface. A cupboard or two would complete the scene. There would be a single doorway, and usually just one small inwardly opening window covered with a mesh screen on the outside to keep out insects if it was opened.
Before the widespread adoption of refrigerators, most households were unable to store perishable goods. Some may have owned a meat safe, but these were largely the privileged few. Perishables were bought as and when needed, with regular trips to the butcher, greengrocer or fishmonger – everything else found its way into the larder.
WHAT CAN BE STORED?
Larders were used to keep anything from jars of pickles and jam to tins of condensed milk and containers full of dried pulses. They were also used to store vegetables like potatoes and other root crops, cabbages and sprouts – things with a relatively long shelf life. Fruit, including apples, oranges and bananas could also be kept in them. Dairy products like cheese and eggs would remain cool there, and cured meats such as the odd flitch of bacon may have been hung in them. Sometimes they were also used to store partly prepared foods such as yoghurts whilst they fermented, or cheeses whilst they matured.
Larders were often a place of wonder – especially for children, who were rarely allowed inside. They were believed to be brimming with goods – and treats if they were lucky. The larder was a wonderful resource. An ingredient could always be found to complete a dish or conjure up a meal for unexpected visitors. It’s perhaps not surprising that they are now sought after, especially with many people looking for somewhere to preserve the excess food they grow at home. Whereas once they were converted into utility rooms or used to extend a kitchen, now many people are reinstating them as larders, or looking for properties with a larder.
TYPES OF LARDER
These days many newer houses just don’t have the space for a designated larder room. Living spaces are much more compact (a trend unlikely to end anytime soon). But there are many ways you can ‘have’ a larder. For instance, manufacturers of free-standing larders have seen a boom in trade. These are a little like a shallow wardrobe with double doors which open out to reveal an array of shelves within. They may not be as cool inside as a traditional larder, but they are a great way to de-clutter a kitchen and store non-perishables.
Others may be built in as part of the kitchen cabinetry in new kitchen designs. Although they are usually ventilated, they remain exposed to the heat of the kitchen and the heating of the house, so they are not as cool as the larder of the past. But a larder doesn’t have to be in the kitchen; any small cool space could house one. You could build one under the stairs, or if you’re fortunate enough to have a cellar, that would be an ideal choice. < diag. 2 with cation: A cupboard beneath the stairs. >
WHERE TO PLACE IT
Suitable places include:
- A ventilated cellar.
- A cool basement.
- A cupboard under the stairs.
- A cupboard you can insulate and vent (fitted or free-standing).
- A room off your kitchen.
- An unused small room with an outside north-facing wall.
The important elements for any larder are insulation, ventilation and darkness. Make sure that the larder is sealed off with a well-fitting door, and the inside is insulated with the right materials. For walk-in larders, this includes the roof space.
You will need to install vents to keep the larder cool. A single vent is not enough, as it won’t pull the air through the larder to cool it. Instead, there should be two vents: one high up on a wall, and one low down nearer the floor. As air warms inside the larder it rises and passes out at the top vent, and cold air from outside is sucked in to replace it. Place the vents on an external wall – a north-facing wall that does not receive sun is best. If the larder is on a south-facing wall, you would be better installing vents on a north-facing wall and connecting them to the larder using ducting placed under the floor and in the ceiling.
Having suitable ventilation also helps to avoid draughts running through the house when the larder door is opened; they stop cool air being pulled into the house. Vents also help to regulate humidity in the air, and high levels of humidity will make your produce deteriorate more quickly. It’s worth considering installing an extractor fan in the higher vent to help with air exchange. Make sure there is no access for insects to gain entry through the vents.
Most staircases have space beneath which could provide a perfect place to install a larder. Once again, you will need to ventilate the area, either through the floor or through an outside wall. However, if such a cupboard has to have a low door, you really may not wish to get on your hands and knees every time you want to retrieve something from your larder.
LARDERS IN NEW BUILDS
If you’re building a new house, it could be an ideal opportunity to include a bespoke larder. If the larder is not going to have an outside wall you will need your builder to install underground ducting to the external vents, and this will need to be insulated to prevent condensation.
Also, the wall and ceiling lining should not absorb moisture, so normal plasterboard won’t do, but plasterboard with a moisture barrier is perfect for the job. < pic 4 with caption: Use labelled glass containers so you can see the contents and labels of those at the front and those at the back. Put the labels higher on taller ones. >
If the larder is in a bungalow, you should also insulate the ceiling with normal housing insulation such as rolls of mineral wool and insulation boards. External double brick or stone walls will remain nice and cool. Internal walls may need extra insulation. If possible, also line the door with a moisture barrier such as polystyrene, over which you can add a thin layer of moisture-resistant MDF. You can then paint over it to improve the appearance.
For existing buildings, a further possibility is to build a small room on an outside wall of the kitchen to use as a larder. Ideally, this should be a wall that doesn’t face south.
- If possible, position the larder on the north-facing side of the house, as this is the coolest area.
- A larder should be ventilated – this keeps it cool and controls humidity.
- A larder should be reasonably dark when the door is shut.
- It should be easy to access, and items should also be easily seen, to prevent things being hidden in the dark recesses – narrow shelves will help prevent this.
- It should exclude vermin, flies and insects.
- It should have easy-to-clean surfaces, and be kept clean.
- A stone floor or ceramic tiles will help with cleaning, and will be a lot cooler than timber.
- A marble or slate stone preparation bench is a bonus (it helps to keep things cool).
- Oak is also useful for shelving, as it, too, stays cooler for longer than less dense woods.
- Vents and external windows must be covered with insect mesh.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
A larder needs to be well lit when used. Modern LED lighting that switches on when you open the door is the perfect solution.
A wall socket inside the larder may be useful if you also wish to use electric kitchen gadgets inside.
Some larger larders may have a sink and water connected. Avoid hot water, though, because it will increase the heat and humidity.
There are many options these days, including ‘lazy Susan’ rotating shelves for corners, pull-out shelving on wheels, or just plain timber shelves. Make sure that they are not too deep, because you will tend to lose things at the back. Spice racks on the backs of cupboard doors and U-shaped shelving can maximise available room.
Many foods (fresh or preserved) will deteriorate faster if exposed to light, high temperatures or humidity. Foods can also be contaminated or eaten by insects, rodents or other pests. Good design will minimise all of these food storage problems.
BUILD IT YOURSELF
If you have some basic carpentry skills you can probably create a larder yourself; and if you don’t, why not learn? You can then save money, not to mention time having to wait for a tradesman every time you have a small carpentry job.
The authors of this article run a great, self-paced, online course on carpentry and much, much more. Visit www.acsedu.co.uk to find out more.