This is an exciting time of year on the farm. Vegetable production is surging towards its peak and new varieties are available every week. The weather has warmed, and the farmhands are hard at work every day tending to the annual plants, perennials, and trees. There is also a flurry of activity right outside the kitchen window as master stonemasons work on the construction of our new root cellar.
A root cellar is an unheated below-ground ‘room’ historically used for the storage of crops from the early 18th century through modern times, although their use has changed since the popularization of refrigeration. No longer are root cellars an essential part of our food system but rather they provide a space for the storage of root vegetables, cabbages, and other crops for those who grow them. Our root cellar here on the farm will also be used for the storage of jams, preserves, and fermented vegetables.
The temperature in a root cellar should be above freezing even during our snow-covered winters, yet cooler than room temperature even during the heat of summer, despite the lack of engineered heating or cooling systems. Root cellars can be dug into the ground, built into a hillside, or built above ground and covered with dirt or sod. Elkstone’s root cellar began with the excavation of a hillside and the creation of a concrete foundation. The stonemasons are now laying stone throughout the interior, and soon they will build the arched entrance and the roof.
Plants moved into the root cellar immediately after harvest can be ‘tricked’ into thinking they are still below ground because of the conditions. Although the plants do not continue to grow in the low-light environment, they continue respiration for some time which wards off the effects of decomposition. Additionally, when root vegetables are placed in the cellar with soil still on them, the microbes in the soil defend against the growth of spoilage microbes for some time, thereby warding off decay.
As a chef I am incredibly excited for the construction of our root cellar. Even though it is clearly summer, my mind is already imagining fall and winter farm dinners and the products we will need to store now for use in colder times. There is no perfect substitute for a root cellar – not a refrigerator nor a freezer nor a pantry will do. The root cellar will open up opportunities for vegetable storage that we did not have previously, and the result will be a better dining experience for our guests. Hopefully you will be one!