Who can resist the idea of a store room filled with provisions, home-made jams, hunks of cheese, piles of home-grown veg and tins of freshly baked cakes?
Well resist no more, because the larder – an essential for our forebears – is back. Its renaissance is thanks to a good dose of nostalgia coupled with the desire to be green, the rise of farmer’s markets, growing your own and entertaining at home.
The word ‘larder’ comes from the Medieval French lardier, referring to the preservation of whole joints of meat for winter by potting them, covered in lard, in huge barrels. While stately homes might have had a full complement of larderium for potting meat, salsarium for salting meat, along with fish, game and dry larders, modest homes would have had a simple outdoor meat safe.
As time went by, better access to shops and regular deliveries of food made such complex storage systems unnecessary. By the late 19th century, the larder had become a cool storeroom for the sort of items that we now keep in the fridge. But in the early 20th century, the advent of domestic fridges and freezers put paid to the larder and post-Second World War, many were knocked into the kitchen or turned into utility rooms. The larder, it seemed, had had its day.
Fast-forward 60 years and the tide is turning. Oxford-based building company Symm says around half its major projects include a larder, while Jon Rosby, MD of John Lewis of Hungerford, says that his kitchen company has seen an enormous rise in demand over the last two years from nostalgic homeowners choosing larder cupboards to help recreate a rustic, homely kitchen.
Marta van Emden, of environmentally conscious Cornish kitchen designers George Robinson, adds: ‘We have definitely noticed that the larder cupboard is a must-have in new kitchen design – for about the last year we’ve been putting one in more or less every kitchen we do.’
Brigit Strawbridge, whose charity the Big Green Idea is dedicated to showing people how easy sustainable living can be, remembers her grandmother’s larder with fondness. ‘It’s great that larders are coming back into fashion,’ she says. ‘There is nothing quite as green as a larder, for so many reasons. Many things keep just as well in a larder as in a fridge, and because they help you to cook and preserve in bulk, it saves time, energy and trips to the shops. And if you can reduce the size of your fridge or freezer you can save more energy in the kitchen than by cutting out any other appliance.’
Buying a larder cupboard
The modern alternative to the built-in larder is the larder cupboard, a cross between an ordinary kitchen cupboard and a separate storage room, constructed to fit into your kitchen alongside other units, and perhaps even integrating appliances such as a fridge, oven or coffee maker.
Styles vary, but what they have in common is the ability to store a range of food in a combination of drawers or pull-out baskets, shelves and racks. They’re often full-height, incorporating a cold shelf made from slate or marble and perhaps a series of small holes in the doors for air circulation.
Helen Davies, designer at Roundhouse, sees larder cupboards as part of a trend away from wall units, offering a ‘wardrobe of food’ in which you can see everything in one location. It would be hard to find a top-end kitchen manufacturer who doesn’t offer at least one larder (sometimes called a pantry) as part of its range, and many of the mid-range suppliers offer similar designs, too.
As well as buying off the shelf, you can have them made to your own specifications, whether you require a capacious walk-in or a simple half-height, pull-out version.
Most are made from natural or unpainted wood with panelled doors and timber or marble shelves, but larder cupboards do have a sleek, modern equivalent, in glossy laminate with stainless steel, chrome or glass fittings. Expect to pay at least £1,000 for a small version while the sky’s the limit – literally tens of thousands – for huge, bespoke larders with all the trimmings.
How to build a larder
It’s not rocket science, but building in a proper, separate larder storage room is often only something that can feasibly be done as part of a new-build, extension or major renovation work.
That said, it may be possible to convert a cellar, under-stairs cupboard or even a coal hole. Larders need to be cool, so unless you plan to install air conditioning, they are best situated on the north or east side of a house. They also need to be well ventilated, while preventing access to insects or vermin, so require a small window or two covered with fine mesh.
Easy-clean walls and floor are a good idea – white wall tiles and quarry floor tiles are traditional – while ample lighting is a necessity. Shelves may be mostly timber, but at least one in cool marble, granite or slate is ideal; allow a few deep spaces for large items and some shallow shelving to hold smaller things such as cans and packets. You’ll also want drawers, baskets and hooks, spice boxes and wine racks, perhaps a power socket, and a comfortably wide doorway.
Whereas once we believed in the magical food-preserving properties of the fridge and crammed it to the gunnels with produce, we’re currently experiencing something of a backlash.
Turns out that many foodstuffs actually taste better and last longer when they’re not buried in the chilly confines of a fridge freezer. ‘Fridges are aggressive and rip the moisture out of things,’ says Charlie Hicks, greengrocer extraordinaire.
Cheese should be served at room temperature and keeps best between 8-10°C. Wrap it in waxed paper and keep it in the larder for maximum flavour. According to many foodies, those egg trays in the door of your fridge are the worst place to store eggs, as the movement of the door degrades the quality of the whites.
Although the Food Standards Agency recommends you store eggs in the fridge to prevent the growth of salmonella, any good cook will tell you that eggs are better used at room temperature. Eggshells are porous, so eggs take on the flavour of foods stored in close proximity – keep them in their box to minimise the risk.
Fruit from warm climates doesn’t fare well in the fridge – bananas go black, avocados go dark brown but stop ripening, strawberries and tomatoes lose some of their flavour, and yellow melons can develop black spots. In fact, most fruit can be kept in a bowl in the kitchen perfectly well, as long as you keep bananas separately.
Vegetables such as onions, courgettes, peppers, mushrooms and root veg, including potatoes, carrots and parsnips, all benefit from being kept in a cool, dark place – just not the fridge. Salad leaves are among the few things that do actually stay crisper if they’re kept in the fridge.