The Meat Safe and Alternative Refrigeration

In smaller household’s wooden kitchen dressers often fulfilled the job of the pantry and meat safes or ice boxes were used for foods which needed a cooler storage space. Meat safes were a common feature on many colonial New Zealand houses. Often it was in the form of a small cupboard built on the southern wall of the house accessed through a cupboard door in the kitchen wall. The use of slatted shelves and ventilation kept the cool air circulating around the food stuffs inside. Louvred boards kept the rain out while still maintaining the air movement through the mesh covered opening. It is interesting to note that some houses in New Zealand were built with these on the northern side of the house, which really defeated the purpose of the meat safe. It is thought that the builders had not considered the difference in compass orientation from their practices in the Northern hemisphere. 

A wall meat safe in a 1930’s kitchen

Other variations of these cool cupboards were the freestanding wooden or metal ‘meat safes’ or ‘pie safes’ which were constructed similar to the built-in meat safe. These had the benefit of being able to be moved if necessary, depending on the season. Larger cool cupboards which were built into the interior kitchen cabinetry seem to have been built later in the twentieth centry possibly circa 1940’s to 1950’s.  Often these would be floor to ceiling cupboards with a vent under the house and another vent either into the ceiling or out through the wall. They relied on convection currents to remain cool, the warm air rises and exits through the top vents, which pulls the cool air up through the bottom vent. Several smaller cupboard doors were common to prevent cool air loss when accessing the food stuffs inside and slatted shelves to allow for maximum airflow. Obviously, these cupboard systems worked best for meat and dairy during the cooler months, but by wrapping food in damp cloths or placing them on stone slabs the cooling could be extended. However, in some places over winter the exterior meat safes occasionally became freezers, as outside temperatures plunged below freezing. More often these days the cool cupboard is used to store fruit and vegetables, and can in fact be a handy addition to a homesteading kitchen. 

Meat safe from a 1925 catalogue

The ice box was more of a precursor to our modern refrigerator, which had a compartment on top for placing large blocks of ice. The cupboard below this was kept cool as it slowly melted, often these were free standing, but some were plumbed in so the run off was diverted outside or down a drain. Ice boxes were usually only appropriate for town houses as the ice would be delivered by the ‘iceman’ in blocks cut to fit the household’s icebox.

An old Ice box with top lid for the blocks of ice and cool cupboard below.

In hot, dry areas versions of a Coolgardie safe were used, this could be a wooden safe similar to a meat safe with a container of water on top. A hessian cloth or sack would be placed with an end in the water and draped over the safe, where it would slowly draw the water from the container. Usually, the safe would be on a veranda or other airy place so that any breeze would pass through the wet hessian and evaporate the water. This process would cool the air inside the safe and any extra water would fall into a tray below the safe. For larger cool storage areas, the same principles were used in an airy room. It would be hung with hessian curtains which would be soaked in water or have their hems sitting in trays of water. The evaporation and air movement would cool the room allowing perishable food items to be stored longer. 

Evaporative cooling is used in many hot countries for low tech refrigeration, the zeer pot is simply a large clay pot with a smaller clay pot inside, the space between the two pots is filled with damp sand and a wet cloth placed over the top. The pot must be placed in a dry, airy space to allow for evaporation. This system has also been used in a large double brick walled structures with damp sand between the brick walls and a cloth, wood or woven cover. But evaporative cooling can only work in areas where humidity is below 40% and maximum daily temperatures are higher than 25°C. 

On a still more basic level we have the camping trick of putting your perishables in a water proof container and popping them in an onion sack (tied to something) in flowing water or lowering them into the well (if you have one). While most people these days have easy access to electrical refrigeration understanding and utilising other methods can expand your cool storage capabilities and can provide better food security and preservation for low or no power situations. 

For more food storage ideas check out our other articles…  

Lard in the Larder 

Sorting the Pantry or ‘Dry Larder’ 

Long Term Storage of ‘Fresh’ Fruit and Vegetables   

A design for incorporating a cool cupboard into our kitchen

Sorting the Pantry or ‘Dry Larder’

The ‘dry’ larder was more like today’s larder or pantry, this was where the grain, dried fruits, cooked pastries, dried meats and even some types of hard cheeses were stored. The word pantry originated from the Latin word ’panis’ (bread).  In medieval times the bread was stored in the ‘panetrie’ (bread chest or closet) and in large households this was maintained by the ‘pantler’. But by the seventeenth century its function had expanded from a closet to a small room in which many foods were stored. It would be situated in a cool area with low humidity (dry) in or near the kitchen and often was vented to the outside. This is where the cross over between the words larder and pantry would have originated, as the dry larder merged with the panetrie. 

In smaller household’s wooden kitchen dressers often fulfilled the job of the pantry, some with tilting bins for flour or grain. Later when built in cabinetry became popular these wooden bins were still used in the kitchen and in more modern times these old bins could often be found stuffed with plastic bags! 

So, what about today’s pantry? 

While many kitchens may have a large pantry style cupboard built in, is it really suitable if you are planning on preserving a large amount of your harvest. The basic requirements for long term dry and canned or bottled food storage are dry, cool and dark. Airflow or ventilation can help keep the room dry and cool as long as it is not drawing air from a damp environment. While laundries are often used for extra storage, they are probably too damp for optimal storage, even cupboards near the bathroom can be too damp. The same can apply to garages and other outside sheds, if you are using these spaces keep an eye on metal lids for rust and for any signs of condensation on or in containers storing bulk foods etc.  It is considered best to keep most stored foods below 20°C, but as many foods like flours, nuts, garlic and onions last longer at lower temperatures it is handy to try and achieve this for the whole storage area. Onions and garlic prefer temps of 10 to 15°C, flour is better at even lower temps (freezing flour will increase its storage time to about a year) so finding a balance which works for the type of food stored is best. Cooler temperatures can also help with lessoning insect issues. Light, especially direct sunlight shortens the shelf life of many foods, so make sure the pantry/storage area is dark most of the time.  

Our pantry here at Fodder Farm

But there are another couple of factors to consider, the quantity of food you are hoping to store and the weight of it. For example: a 1 litre Agee jar takes up about 10 cm2 of room on the shelf, if you needed to store 50 jars that would be 500cm2 or 1m of shelving 50cm deep. If we were to use recycled jam jars, they would need about 7.5cm2, at 50 jars that would be 375cm2 or 1m of shelving 37.5cm deep.  You might be thinking 50 jars is a lot of jars… but say we made enough bottles of tomato sauce for the year, 1 per week, 52 bottles, bottled apples say another 30 large jars, jam x 20 (because you always give some away, right?) chutneys and relishes x 20, beetroot x 10, peaches x 30 large jars, plums x 30 large jars, tomatoes x 40 jars, that’s about 5 metres of 40 to 50 cm wide shelving just there and I haven’t even started on the pressure canning. For our family of four at home, we would probably have to allow for storage of say 500 jars and bottles or more. Then we have to add in the storage of staples like baking items, nuts, dried fruits, dried mushrooms, herbs and spices, teas and coffee, sweeteners, vinegar etc. Some of these are stored in large buckets on the floor, most are in jars for air tight storage. We also have baskets of onions and garlic in our main pantry, this all takes up space.  

The amount of jars which need storing soon add up.

Then there is the weight of all this, a full 1 litre Agee jar of cooked apple weighs about 1.4kgs, 50 of these jars would weigh 70kg on their 1 metre shelf, that’s a lot of weight for the shelf to carry. Which means thicker shelving and extra bracing if you are planning on storing your bottled goods in this manner. A full reused jam jar weighs just about 500g, which would be 25kg for 50 jars. Storing heavy jars in stackable crates, bins or wooden boxes may be a preferable option and in earthquake prone areas this is a really good storage method. Just make sure the preserves are well labelled and still easily accessible or transfer some to the pantry shelving occasionally, it can be very frustrating having to rummage for something among the stacks of jars. 

Earthquake proofing is certainly worth doing if you live in a shaky area, though there seems to be quite a few differing ideas on what is suitable. I have seen tiny ‘lips’ on the edges of shelves or very low wires about 1 cm up, these might stop the jars jiggling off the shelf. But we have experienced quite a few big jolts and prolonged shaking so prefer to go for a higher taunt wire stretched from wall to wall. It’s a bit of a compromise between protection and functionally as we still want easy access to our pantry items. We figure if it shakes so bad most of our jars fall off the shelf with the wire there, then we will probably have bigger issues to worry about than broken jars of food. Which kind of raises the old saying ‘Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket’, using a variety of food storage methods gives you more protection against loses.  

For more food storage ideas check out our other articles… 

Lard in the Larder

The Meat Safe and Alternative Refrigeration

Long Term Storage of ‘Fresh’ Fruits and Vegetables

Lard in the Larder

Storing food in fat is virtually unheard of these days but this method of food preservation is actually the origin of the of the word larder. We tend to think of a larder in the same context as a pantry, but historically they are in fact two distinctly different food storage spaces. 

The larder was a cool room or cellar where meat was stored. Often this meat was submerged in lard in large crocks or barrels. The chunks of meat or whole sausages were partially cooked and then placed in the container and covered with warm rendered lard. This would be repeated until the whole container was full of meat surrounded and separated by the lard. It would then be covered and stored in the larder until needed. This space was also often used for storing uncooked meat, cheeses, hanging game, such as rabbit, duck or pheasants and also storing vegetable or fruit which needed higher humidity levels. To achieve higher humidity in the larder they were often in earth floored or earth walled cellars. 

Meat hanging in a larder (ideally a larder would not have a window like this, or would have a cover or screen over it.) Image source – Flickr

The Pātaka was the Māori version of the larder, except it was above ground on stilts to protect the stored foods from rats. These elevated huts use the air flow through gaps in the walls and had large overhanging eaves to keep food cooler and dry. Pātaka often held seeds, dried foods and meat stored in fat in gourds and pōhā (Southern bull kelp bags). This method was often used for Mutton birds (tītī) packing them into the pōhā and covering with their own fat, though these days salt curing is more common. 

 Pātaka , Image source – Te Ara

Which leads us back, through this little history lesson, to meat stored in fat as a food preservation method.  We were fortunate to spend an hour or so chatting with a local kaumātua. He told us of his father repurposing wooden tea chests to make meat storage containers. His mother would partially cook the meat and put it in the boxes (probably on a bed of fat) then rendered fat would be poured over the meat. The fat would seal any small gaps and completely surround the meat, stopping all air and bacteria from contact with the meat. These boxes would then be covered and stored in a cool outhouse until needed. 

This method of meat storage many would find shocking in today’s germophobic and fatphobic culture.  But it is in fact a very ancient practice, many cultures store meat in this manner.   An example being ‘Confit’ a French method of salt cured meat such as duck, goose, pork etc. Which is poached it in its own fat, then stored covered in that same fat. Stored in a cool dry place this meat will be good for at least six months. 

Confit, meat stored in fat. Image source – Flickr

Salting and/or cooking the meat first is necessary to kill any existing bacteria, then immersing it completely in hot fat to seal the meat from any further exposure.  A simple method is to use hot sterilised jars and place the hot meat in surrounding it with hot rendered fat as you go.  Many homesteaders use this method for storing meat patties. A small amount of fat would be poured into the base of the jar, a cooked meat patty is placed on the fat layer and more fat poured to cover it. This would be repeated until the jar was full to within an inch from its rim and topped off with a final layer of fat. A sterilised lid would be put on and the jar left to cool before being moved into cool storage place like a traditional larder or cellar. 

Rillettes is another well-known recipe where pork is seasoned and simmered in its own fat until it is falling apart. The pork is then shredded and packed into sterilised jars with the rendered lard, making sure the meat is fully covered to seal it. These practices were best done in the cooler months, usually autumn processing for winter and spring eating. The fat needs to remain in a solid state to preserve the food, high temperatures can melt the fat which could result in spoilage. However, this method can apply to simply storing your cooking or soap making fat for the year. We render all excess fat and store it in sterilized jars in the pantry, the jars seal and are perfectly fine as we open them to use over the following months. 

Larding is also a traditional method for aging cheddar cheeses, called ‘clothbinding’ the cheeses were wrapped in coarsely woven cheesecloth and then smeared with lard. The lard impedes air’s access to the surface of the cheese, which limits the extent of fungal growth while aging and preserves the cheese for longer periods. Once completely covered the cheese is stored in a cool, humid environment, with occasional flipping and wiping of the outside with a dry cloth to further limit fungal growth.

Kunekune pigs are a lard pig which produce lots of high quality lard.

Rendering Fat. 

As rendered fat is used in all these preservation methods it’s important to know how rendering is done. There are different names for the fat depending on the animal, lard is from pigs, tallow or dripping is from beef and lamb. You can also render the fat of poultry and render butter into ghee. 

  1. Chop the fresh or frozen fat into small pieces or mince batches of frozen fat in a food processor or mincer. You can trim any meat off the fat, but don’t worry too much. 
  1.  Heat at a very low temperature, about 100 °C, you don’t want to burn the fat, but you do want any water to evaporate. A slow cooker, roasting dish in the oven or a heavy bottomed pot on the stove will work. 
Rendering fat in a heavy bottomed pot
  1.  Cook until you have liquid fat with small browned solid fat lumps. This can take a few hours. 
  1.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little before filtering through a cloth lined metal funnel directly into hot steralised jars. (Do not use plastic as the heat from the fat can melt it) if you don’t have a metal funnel you can strain through a cloth lined sieve into a pyrex jug and then pour into the jars. Metal lids can be put on hot or plastic lids once the jar cools. The fat with be golden coloured while hot but will turn creamy white as it cools. (If you wish to store the fat in plastic it is best let it cool somewhat before pouring it into the container) 
  1. We store our jarred fat at room temperature or in a cool cupboard as it is shelf stable if rendered properly. Once opened the jar is usually put in the fridge, you can also store in the freezer if you want. 
Fat cooling in jars.

For more food storage ideas check out our other articles… 

The Meat Safe and Alternative Refrigeration

Sorting the Pantry or ‘Dry Larder

Long term storage of ‘fresh’ fruit and vegetables

Healthy Soil and Ramial mulch

Nature won’t allow bare soil; it will attempt to cover it with growth as fast as possible. The only places in nature with bare earth are recently exposed ground or deserts and rocky areas. Yet we as gardeners think we know better, faithfully pulling the weeds and clearing the soil to allow our plants to grow big and strong. Long rows of single species plants with bare soil between is the classic image of a well-tended garden. But what about when we look beyond the visual garden and instead look to understand the soil in which this garden grows. 

Soil is about so much more than a medium for growing your plants, when soil is healthy it is a thriving underground community of microorganisms, full of bacteria (not a bad word but an essential part of life…) fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and more.  These underground livestock create a food cycling system, utilising the organic matter and minerals in their environment, which produces a more bio-available food source for your plants. The theory is, by some natural soil scientists, that once you have built up your underground livestock to a thriving ecosystem you will no longer have to apply nutrients to your soil to achieve good plant growth. 

So, what encourages this underground ecosystem to grow? The most important step is ‘first do no harm’. This means look at everything you apply to your plants and soil from a ‘does this benefit the soil’ approach. Fungicides, pesticides, herbicides can cause great harm, even natural based ones, these are killers for you soil life. The use of synthetic fertilisers and even the natural ones used in large doses break the natural nutrition cycle, again causing harm to the tiny critters in the soil. It is better to tweak your garden with low amounts of nutrient if needed. Usually as foliar applications, light layers of aged compost or light spreading of vermicast.  

Mycelium in the garden

By minimising soil disturbance and leaving the roots of harvested plants in the ground where possible, you have less disruption to the underground eco-systems. While an initial double digging of garden beds is often needed when establishing gardens in compacted areas (to allow for aeration and improved water absorption) the less digging and soil movement the better it is for the soil. Once formed the garden beds should not be walked on to retain their soft earth feel and prevent re-compaction.  

Diversity is another important tool in maintaining not only the health of the soil but also for the plants above. Companion plants which support the growth of other plants, deter or distract pest insects from your crops and also plants which bring the beneficial insects into the garden. Perennial crops and herbs act as anchor plants, a safe haven for your underground livestock for when you do have to lightly cultivate areas, such as planting or harvesting carrots and other roots crops.  

Diversity in the garden

Which brings us back to the opening statement ‘Nature won’t allow bare soil’ Maintaining a cover on your soil, whether it is plant cover or natural mulches reduces moisture loss, soil loss through erosion and most importantly creates a carbon food source for your underground livestock. Increasing the carbon in your soil improves nutrient cycles, water holding capacity and less need for inputs.  Forests are the perfect example of carbon cycling. In deciduous forests the leaves drop, branches break and trees fall, the undergrowth grows up and dies down, all of this cycles the nutrients in a continuous rhythm. If we mimic this cycling on a smaller scale in our gardens, returning all organic matter to the land in various forms, mulch, compost, vermicast, manure, chop and drop, we create a carbon/nutrient cycle with the aid of our underground livestock crew. 

Luckily for our soil’s microbial life mulching and covering the earth is becoming common practice in natural garden systems.  What was initially viewed as labour saving by reducing weeds and the need to water as much, is now seen as life enhancing for our soil and the plants which grow in it. The best source of mulch is from your own property and if you have trees and woody shrubs all pruning can be made into Ramial wood mulch. 

Ramial wood mulch and straw mulch.

Ramial Wood Mulch 

Ramial mulch is made from the fresh cut branches, up to 7cm in diameter and mulched while the cambium layer is still green. Having your own mulcher at hand means these branches can be dealt with promptly and provides a regular supply of fresh ramial mulch. Often leaf matter or tree buds are included in the mulch which adds even more nutrient for the soil. It is considered to have the optimal balance of carbon to nitrogen when used fresh, becoming higher in carbon as it ages. An issue with using aged wood chip is it can result in a ‘nitrogen deficit’ where the woodchip and soil meets. This is because the microorganisms (underground livestock) that use the low-nitrogen wood mulch as food and therefore breaking it down, must source the nitrogen they need from the soil instead.  The soil nitrogen is tied up as their population grows, but as they break down the wood mulch and the microorganisms die the nitrogen releases back to the soil. If too much nitrogen is removed from the soil it can lead to pale leaves and stunted growth, symptoms of nitrogen deficiency.  This can be negated by adding nitrogen to the soil in the form of blood and bone or aged manure at the time of applying the mulch or just by using ramial mulch.  

For more information, please check out: 

Integrity soils

Soil Food Web

And Korean Natural Farming at 

Making Ramial wood mulch.

Yacon Syrup

A while ago we were given a little 250ml jar of yacon syrup. The price on the lid was $19.50, but as its best before date was passed we were given it for free with our bulk food shopping. It was thick and gooey, with a strong molassery taste. I wasnt that impressed but tried it in a few recipes.

Later on we were given a yacon plant, which sat in its pot for a year waiting to be planted. Finally last spring we had a place for to go in the ground. It grew to about 1.5 metres tall, with lovely big leaves and little yellow flowers. Generally you harvest them after the first frost, but as our frosts this year ( have only had a couple so far) have been pretty mild ours is still growing and flowering in June. But a friend down the road has some and hers have died down, so we were given a bucketful to try. I’m not really a fan of them fresh, though the crispy juicy texture is quite nice. But we like to experiment and even though we eat low carb a little bit of sweetness is nice occasionally. Even better is knowing how to make your own homegrown (or neighbour grown) and home made natural sweeteners.

Making Yacon Syrup.

We washed the yacon tubers, peeled them and cut them into long pieces which would fit into the hand mincer.

The tubers are very crisp and juicy so mincing was an easy task, but you could use a food processor instead.

Mincing the yacon

Once minced the pulp was tipped into a colander lined with cheese cloth, over a pot. We allowed the juice to drain, then gathered up the cloth and squeezed the pulp to get all the juice out, twisting the cloth into a tight ball.

The juice was brought to the boil and then simmered on the woodstove for most of the day. Any scum that formed on the surface was removed.

Once it had reduced to a fragrant syrup we removed it from the heat and poured the syrup through a fine sieve into a sterilised hot glass jar.

There was a small amount of ‘debris’ left in the sieve, if you were doing a larger amount this could probably be saved for baking etc.

The finished syrup

From 2.66kg of fresh yacon, we ended up with 208g of syrup. I did notice some condensation it the jar as it cooled, so we probably should have reduced the syrup a bit more, which would have resulted in a lower yield. However we will store it in the fridge so the moisture content should not be an issue.

We were impressed with the flavour, kind of like a mild golden syrup. certainly not as thick and molassery as the commercial jar we were given, which is another reason why we think it may not have been reduced enough. But our syrup was much nicer tasting than the commercial product, we are not sure whether that was due to it being fresher, runnier or just because homemade often tastes better!

Would we make it again? Definitely. The process was easy and once its on the stove its just, check it occasionally, skim it if needed and wait for it to thicken.

Growing Yacon.

Yacons produce the edible tubers and smaller reddish rhizomes, its the rhyzomes which you need to grow the plant or a whole ‘crown’ which is the rhizomes attached to the plant base. As Yacon are frost tender wait till all frost have passed before planting or plant in a frost free area. Otherwise they are a very easy care plant, resonably well drained soil and plenty of compost and mulch should ensure a good crop. But give them a bit of room as they can get to 2m tall, 1 metre spacings are often recommended. Harvest by digging up the whole plant after frosts and when the plant dies down for maximum sweetness. You can set aside the rhizomes or crowns, which can be kept in a paper bag in a dark place or potted up in the greenhouse ready for replanting once the frost have finished, though in warmer areas you can replant and cover mulch the crown over winter.

Yacon crown

The edible tubers should be brushed off without damaging the skin, and air dried, before laying them in a cardboard box with newspaper between the layers and over the top. Store in a cool dark place for about 3 months, they can go wrinkly but are still edible.

Yacon can be roasted or boiled, used in stews and casseroles or in salads, juiced or used in smoothies. It has been said to treat it like a juicy, crunchy potato or a mild apple. The leaves are also apparently edible used like spinach or to wrap food and also as a tea. Yacon is considered to be good stock fodder, both the leaves and the tubers, and the plant is thought to encourage healthy bacteria both in the soil and in the human gut.

An interesting plant with many uses and easy to grow, this year I think we will devote a whole garden bed to it!

Harvested yacon tubers.
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