In Newfoundland, especially on coasts in fishing communities, winters can be ruthless, harsh, and void of viable sources of sustenance (short of game meat).
Preservation methods were essential for surviving the lean season. Of all the methods we have since developed: smoking, salting, spicing, pickling, freezing, vacuum-sealing, or even radiation treating, one method is more ancient, requires less, and is nutritionally more effective than all the rest: The Root Cellar.
While it is no longer 1863, the popularity of root cellars is rapidly increasing, and spreading across Canada. To take back control over their own food, Canadians are buying bulk produce in-season and storing it over the winter, instead of accepting the imported produce options available in supermarkets.
How Long Your Veggies Will Last …
A root cellar is, at its core, simply a covered hole in the ground. The actual form can range from a barrel-sized cubby to a multi-floored walkabout. The builder must look to control four key variables: oxygen levels, temperature, humidity, and available sunlight.
By controlling these variables, one can store many types of crops for amounts of time far longer than they would otherwise last in a commercial fridge.
Onions and potatoes can be kept up to 8 months. Carrots and parsnips can be kept up to 6 months, cabbage and Brussels sprouts as long as 4 months. Beets can be kept up to 3 months. Even apples can last 4 to 6 weeks.
Each vegetable requires specific levels of the aforementioned variables, as well as specific ph to mimic its ideal growing conditions and keep the enzymatic action of the crop at bay. The idea is simple: make the crop believe it is still in soil and its decomposition will be dramatically slowed.
Ideal Conditions …
The root cellar must maintain a temperature above freezing in the winter, and below 4 degrees Celsius in the summer.
This temperature range, shared with commercial refrigerators, is low enough to prevent the growth of food-spoiling micro-organisms, slow the activity of food-spoiling enzymes, and reduce the emission ethylene gas (a ripening hormone) to such a rate, that food can be safely kept year-round. It also prevents freezing, which is detrimental to the quality of fresh vegetables. Conveniently, most root cellars naturally maintain this temperature range year round.
The use of soil as a storage condition began 40,000 years ago with the first aboriginal tribes populating Australia. These tribes would bury their harvested yams in soil to extend their useful lives. This practice has been discovered independently and displayed in many different cultures over human history.
Fast forward 42, 015 years to Elliston NL, a town on the Bonavista Peninsula which claims to have more root cellars per capita than any other community on the planet. The community has 300 citizens with 133 root cellars.
These cellars were facing neglect as a new generation of people started using newer refrigeration methods. However, a recent surge of interest from locals with a passion for traditional food practices, as well as tourism appeal, has made Elliston the site for the annual Roots, Rants, and Roars festival.
The premise is to celebrate local ingredients through contributions by the province’s (and planet’s) top chefs, stationed every mile along a hike through the community.
Root cellars are making a comeback due to their effectiveness, versatility, and unparalleled ability to grant local produce in the winter months. They can also be used to create very unique flavors and fermentations by refining storage conditions and extending times, a technique which is being used in world-leading restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, and Faviken in Sweden, to elevate folk-traditions born out of necessity into phenomena appreciated for what they really are: natural wonders.