Root cellars could be called feats of engineering dating back millennia, but very little technology, other than careful observation of nature and the trial-and-error method, may have gone into their construction and usage. Just plain need of storing excess produce for lean times was the impetus behind these typically earthbound structures which were either carved out of a hill, or built into the ground to be accessed by a trap door.
Even though the indigenous tribes of Australia are credited with the original root cellars that they used for storing their yams, the present-day concept of root cellars for storing all agricultural produce, as well as a good collection of spirits, originated in England in the 17th century only. They were popular with the North American settlers, quite understandably, since agriculture was their mainstay.
A typical root cellar is built into a hill, which would offer excellent insulation on all sides but one. After all, maintaining optimal temperature for food storage is the whole idea. Neither too cool that food would freeze, nor too warm that it would rot. If there are no conveniently located outcrops close to the residence, people build underground cellars accessed by a ladder or a few steps.
After all these years, and besieged with every convenient storage options such as refrigerators and deep freezers, why should we go back to the old days? The renewed interest in these eminently useful structures is not a nostalgic trip into antiquarian times or a departure from modern conveniences on principles of sustainable living. The comparative benefits of root cellars themselves recommend them.
It can provide you fruits and vegetables year-round. In spite of their name, these storage areas are not meant exclusively for potatoes or other crops dug out from the ground. In fact, apples were one of the main items in an English root cellar, not to mention wines and beers that love these cool dark places.
What You Can Store
Why the name “root cellar,” then?
Root crops were what sustained people for longer periods. They typically gave substantial yields that had to be harvested all at once, making safe storage the foremost priority. Grains and pulses could be dried and stored, but potatoes, turnips and carrots had to be kept in conditions that would keep them plump and sweet. You’d be surprised to know how many different types of food can have a better shelf life in the cool and moist environs of a cellar.
Here’s a brief list to give you an idea: