In praise of the domestic larder: an alternative to the modern fridge

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Posted Aug 18 2017 by Sophie Paterson of
A 1940s style larder at Home Farm, Beamish Museum A 1940s style larder at Home Farm, Beamish Museum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once a mainstay of households in times gone by, the humble larder provided a practical storage solution for foodstuffs requiring storage over a longer period of time. Nowadays largely a luxury of period properties, larders are eschewed by modern construction due to the dominance of electricity-hungry preservation methods in the form of refrigerators and freezers. We take a look at what larders have to offer and why we should consider bringing them back to life.

Definition of a larder

So what exactly is a larder? The term itself derives from the Old French ‘lardier’, relating to lard or pig fat, signalling that it was originally primarily a space for storing meat, most likely bacon. It soon became used to house a host of many different otherwise perishable foods, however, thanks to the properties inherent in its construction.

Construction of a larder

According to John Henry Walsh, the Victorian author of The English Cookery Book: Uniting a Good Style with Economy, writing in 1859:

The Larder, which is the place set apart for keeping fresh provisions is, and also, in most cases, for the salting of pork, beef, &c., should be placed where it has a thorough draught, and where it is sheltered from the sun. A northerly aspect is therefore the most suitable, or, next to that, an easterly one. The thorough draught cannot always be procured directly; but if it cannot in that way, a large air-drain may be carried under the floor to the opposite side of the house, where a grating may be fixed, and thus a free draught may be obtained. Underground larders are seldom efficient for the keeping of meat, because this perfect draught is not attainable except in windy weather, when there is little difficulty in effecting its preservation; but in moist and muggy weather the air is quite stagnant in the basement story of a town house, and consequently, though tolerably cool, the air is not rapidly changed, and putrefaction goes on without let or hindrance. To fit up a larder for a small house merely requires a number of deal shelves and a door, of which the panels are replaced by plates of perforated zinc, of a pattern sufficiently close to prevent the entrance of flies, yet large enough to admit the air freely. Where there is also a window, it should in like manner be guarded by similar sheets of zinc.

So here we have the most important properties of any properly constructed larder:

  • Ventilation, achieved through small windows or openings adequately covered with fine mesh to prevent intrusion by insects or rodents
  • Ample storage, usually in the form of slabs or shelves ideally formed from stone or marble
  • Coolth (think the opposite of warmth), with larders ideally built to be north or west-facing (south or south-east facing in the southern hemisphere) and as low to the ground as possible in order to best benefit from the thermal mass of the earth to maintain a suitably low temperature in summer months
  • Accessibility, usually situated as close to the kitchen/cooking area as possible, although outdoor larders are still to be found, such as the one pictured below
An outdoor game larder in South Ayrshire, Scotland

An outdoor game larder in South Ayrshire, Scotland. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Larders made use of natural materials – stone, earth or cob – in their construction and were often rendered with lime. An additional bowl of quicklime to take in excess moisture in the air kept many a storeroom and pantry dry until the early 21st century, albeit with the downside of being something of a fire risk.

Of course, not many of us are lucky enough to have an already-existing walk-in larder or the space available to incorporate one in the event of a retrofit. All is not lost, however, as it is possible to recreate a larder-like environment using a free-standing cupboard space instead. They arguably score less well when it comes to efficiency (being primarily built from wood) but do offer a viable alternative to storing a variety of food items in place of a fridge. You could even build your own!

Benefits of a larder

The benefits of larders are many, with the most obvious being that they require no electricity. This is in stark contrast to modern-day fridges which, being in use 24 hours a day, can make up a significant proportion of household energy consumption depending on their size, age and rating. Which? estimate that refrigeration appliances account for a whopping £2bn in electricity bills each year in the UK as they’re switched on around the clock, meaning there can be definite financial benefits in addition to the ecological benefits inherent in switching to a larder. There is also the advantage of being able to clearly see your provisions in one central place. Rather than rooting through to the back of a kitchen cupboard to discover long-forgotten purchases, the beauty of the well-managed larder is that it is designed for food to be easily visible, with the result that less of what you buy should go to waste.

So are there any disadvantages? According to this article on the Permaculture website, it may be necessary to adapt your purchasing, storing and eating habits to make best use of your larder. A good level of coolth can be achieved but it admittedly does not achieve quite the chilled environment of an electric refrigerator. Mark Lark recommends that “…foods such as cheese stores well if you remove it from its plastic packing and wrap in paper. Salad keeps surprisingly well – largely due to the airflow that keeps food in a more natural state, rather than in a closed plastic box!”

Such a change seems small sacrifice for what larders have to offer in the long run. Actively considering how you store food may even lead you to explore how to preserve foods through pickling, fermenting, salting or smoking as our ancestors did for centuries before us. It could also help us better plan meals, bringing us closer to our food, its production and preservation than ever the gurgling of an over-heated fridge could hope to achieve.

Next steps

So what can you do? If you’re in the lucky position to be designing a house from scratch or even planning to retrofit your kitchen, consider how you might incorporate a walk-in larder into your design. For many readers, a free-standing larder cupboard may be the more feasible option. Either way, it’s clear that larders deserve to regain the pride of place they once enjoyed in our homes.