Forget swanky kitchens, pantries make butter and potatoes taste better

Why a larder is the height of luxury: Forget swanky kitchens, a pantry will make your butter and potatoes taste better and let you cure your own meats in lockdown

Thinking about it now, the place I was happiest as a child was in my mother’s larder. It was that special room where you could cool your bare feet in summer; always dimly lit by a small window screened with fine wire mesh to keep the bugs out.

During my childhood in rural England, most neighbours had a larder of sorts. The door to ours was down a few steps from the kitchen in our Buckinghamshire farmhouse and it felt like entering a cave. Chilled by the outside walls, the cool was held in by the tiled floor and stone shelving. I can still conjure the aromas of yeast and earth.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the cheese left over from the weekend, under its nylon net pyramid. Then there were the labelled jars of jam and marmalade. You’d often find the leftovers from the roast sitting on a plate. There would be a big paper sack of spuds and a basket of onions and — always — my parents’ precious bell jar of lethal sloe gin.

Ours was relatively modest by comparison with friends who grew up in larger houses where their larders (note the plural) were grand affairs.

Rose Prince (pictured) says larders aren’t just a status symbol. Used correctly, in these straitened-times, they can help cut down on waste and immeasurably improve family life

These would comprise a series of rooms, one leading into the other: the ‘game larder’, the ‘still room’, the ‘apple store’ and so on.

Some of the best are at Port Eliot House in Cornwall where I would judge the produce show at the annual festival run by the St Germans family.

In one room, the shelves were piled with the most extraordinary collection of copper jelly and cake moulds. In another, under giant cast iron hooks for hanging meat, there was a huge, high wooden counter where all sorts would be prepared for storage.

Envy really isn’t a big enough word for what I felt about those gracious temples to food storage. Yet not all larders have to be as grand, and, as the food writer and presenter Jimmy Doherty pointed out last week, we need them now more than ever, particularly as we are getting out to the shops less.

Larders aren’t just a status symbol. Used correctly, in these straitened-times, they can help cut down on waste and immeasurably improve family life.

As with so many things, we have come full circle and a walk-in larder will now make you the envy of your friends. Pictured: A larder designed by Roundhouse Designs

Before 1959, when the famous summer heatwave saw temperatures rise to 34c and half the population were persuaded to buy a refrigerator, the larder was crucial for keeping food fresh.

With dairy goods delivered daily, and ice cubes seen as a luxury, they were universal. Sadly, by the 1970s, they were seen as old- fashioned with no room for them in modern ‘fitted’ kitchens.

But, as with so many things, we have come full circle and a walk-in larder will now make you the envy of your friends.

All chic kitchen design companies worth their salt now offer traditionally crafted versions. When we viewed the Dorset rectory we now live in, the original larder was a deciding point. My larder, like my mother’s, is also below the floor level of the kitchen; three Purbeck stone steps lead down to it. It measures approximately 8ft by 5ft, is sited on a non-sunny outside wall (essential for keeping naturally cool) and has two screened windows so you can get a good breeze blowing through.

In summer, the temperature rarely reaches above 11c. In winter it’s so chilly you don’t need to put the Prosecco in the fridge.

So, if you would like to make the most of your foodstocks and become the envy of all your friends, here is my guide to how to be a larder queen . . .

CREATE A THRAWL

An essential, yet also the most beautiful aspect of a larder is a wide shelf made from stone of some sort. In the North of England, this slab was known as a ‘thrawl’, and a larder is only a cupboard without one.

You can transform an airy storage area simply by buying a piece of thick slate, marble or stone from a stonemason. It must not be polished because, when the larder is at its coolest, it should be covered by a mist of condensation providing natural humidity.

Sort out the spices

Ingredients look better stored in matching glass jars. I admit to sorting into groups: pulses, grains, baking ingredients, then the spices if possible into a rough alphabetical order. So things can be seen, found and time can be saved as well as looking beautiful.

Find joy in labels

I handwrite the contents directly on the glass jars with chalk pens as the chalk washes off, and I can avoid the mess of sticky labels.

This was a trick I picked up at Daylesford’s great cookery school in the Cotswolds, run by Carole, Lady Bamford, where the larder style and organisation is exemplary. Write both on the surface of the lid and the jar’s side.

Potato paradise

A fridge produces ‘dry cold’ which preserves food but dehydrates it at the same time. I store most vegetables in the larder.

Potatoes will keep for months stored in a ventilated container, a cardboard box with holes for example. The ideal temperature for them is between 7 to 12c — warmer than a fridge. They keep even better if they are ‘muddy’.

Mediterranean vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, taste better because they ripen naturally.

Let meat breathe

When buying red meat for a roast, or cuts like steak or chops, remove packaging and leave on a plate, overnight as the best preparation for cooking — cover with a mesh food saver.

If meat is chilled when it hits the heat of a pan, it is hard to get that perfectly pink lamb or medium rare steak without over cooking the outer part.

Join the curing club

A larder provides the ideal temperature for ‘dry curing’ meat. It is quite an art but is now becoming a popular hobby and you can find DIY kits.

It is very important to make sure the larder is bug free and well aired. The ham in my larder was cured by my enthusiastic son, and will be ready for Christmas.

Better butter

Salted butter contains least 80 per cent fat and has a low water content so bacterial growth is minimal. Keep it on the lowest shelf and you will never need to buy spreadable butter again.

Always keep it wrapped or in a butter dish. I keep my eggs in the larder because I like to eat them fresh and secondly, eggs need to be at room temperature in order for them to be perfectly boiled.

Become an affineur

As for cheese, the hard types keep best in a larder — fridges dry out good cheese. You can also be your own affineur, ageing unripe brie or other, softer cheeses in the larder.

MY WALK-IN LARDER WILL FEED US FOR SIX WEEKS! 

Natasha Wise, 44, is an interior designer and lives in Edgware, North-West London, with husband Paul, 45, and their children Liberty, 15, Jackson, 11, and Summer, seven. She says:

Since unveiling my larder five years ago after a ten-month renovation of our 1930s house, it’s been the envy of my friends — most of whom are avid cooks, just like me.

During lockdown, my larder has been a lifeline. Measuring six square metres, the space has long afforded me the ability to bulk buy, so when people started to panic last month I already had everything we needed in the larder — bar milk, cheese, fruit and veg — to feed our family of five, three meals a day for up to six weeks.

I always dreamed of having a home large enough to accommodate a walk-in larder. With its shelves of gleaming glass jars filled with exotic grains and jewel-coloured baking goodies, as well as seeds, grains and sugar, it reminds me of the sweet shop my grandparents once owned. It’s my little oasis of calm.

Girlfriends are green with envy  

Jess Hyde, 50, lives near Frome, Somerset, with her husband Tom, 53, a solicitor, and their three children Arthur, 18, George, 15, and Nancy, 11. She says:

When we renovated the kitchen in our 400-year-old farmhouse three years ago, the builders found a bricked-up room behind the pantry, which we converted into the walk-in larder.

Now, whenever my girlfriends come over for dinner, it’s a real talking point and those who don’t have larders admit to being envious. Our old kitchen was so horribly dated that when we had it all revamped — the cabinets alone cost £20,000 — it caused quite a stir among my friends who were wowed by the transformation.

But I know the real triumph is the walk-in larder. It’s in the perfect spot at the back of the house with two external walls which back onto a churchyard and ensure the larder is cold.

I spent hours poring over photos of beautiful larders on Pinterest, which I sent to my builder for inspiration. I love the storage that it provides and how it enables me to keep everything organised and visible — and my kitchen clutter-free.

Jess Hyde, 50, (pictured) converted a previously bricked-up room into a walk-in larder in her 400-year-old farmhouse

NO OLD TINS LURK ON THESE SHELVES 

Marie-Louise Hudson, 38, is a graphic designer and lives in Cheshire with her husband Mark, also 38, and their children Ollie, nine, Leo, six, and Kiki, one. She says:

My lovely walk-in pantry has become quite a talking point among my friends and when I had a lockdown FaceTime chat with one of them the other day, she asked me to give her husband a virtual tour!

Since I was a child I’ve dreamed of having a walk-in pantry like the one my cousins had at their house. I absolutely loved it and can vividly remember the smell of herbs and spices.

So, when Mark and I bought our five-bed, detached 1950s house as a renovation project and I spotted the old larder, I was beside myself as I could see the potential for something fabulous.

When I designed the kitchen our joiner suggested we should incorporate the larder door into the kitchen units so that when closed, it looks like a tall cupboard, but the surprise is that behind is my larder measuring 1m wide by 2.5m long.

I like everything in the larder to be orderly. You won’t find any out- of-date tinned peaches lurking on my shelves. Plus it has become Kiki’s favourite hiding place!

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