Rooting Around in The Root Cellar

by Miche Genest

Sheila Alexandrovitch at Mount Lorne Community Centre in September 2017

Sheila Alexandrovitch has homesteaded on the Annie Lake Road, 40 kilometres south of Whitehorse, since 1981. Over the years she’s raised goats, llamas and sled dogs; she’s brought up her two children on the farm, and pursued an artistic practice there, working with materials like willow, beads, precious stones and wool. These days she raises sheep (producing beautiful felted work with their wool) and as always, vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.

Alexandrovitch is locally famous for her vegetable ferments, selling jars and jars of them at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse and the weekly market at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on the Annie Lake Road all summer long. At Mount Lorne’s last, stock-up market of the year, on September 26, she and her helper stood behind two tables groaning under her ferments, and giant mounds of fresh carrots and potatoes. As I purchased a few pounds for our house, we struck up a conversation about root cellars — I knew she was pretty much self-sufficient, and curious about her storage methods.

Every winter, Alexandrovitch stores an impressive weight of vegetables in her root cellar — this year, she’s got 135 pounds of potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots, 40 pounds of beets, 20 to 30 pounds of parsnips, 35 pounds of turnips and 7 or 8 cabbages. Asked when she runs out of supplies, she replied, “I don’t. By the end of June I’m out of carrots, but I always have rutabagas and beets, and I always have potatoes. And by the end of June, we’ve got greens.”

The cellar that stores this bounty is a hole dug into the ground under her house, accessed by a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar is framed in with 2 x 6 boards, insulated with Styrofoam, sheeted in on the inside and completely sealed. In the 2½-foot crawlspace between the earth and the floor of the house, the walls of the cellar are exposed, so the above-ground portion is wrapped with Styrofoam and foil and banked with dirt.

The space is 7 feet long by 6 feet wide and around 4 ½ feet deep — about chest height for Alexandrovitch. There’s no ladder — she just lifts the trap door and jumps in. She piles whatever supplies she’s retrieving onto the kitchen floor, and then jumps out of the cellar, the same way you’d push yourself out of a swimming pool. (She finds this athletic feat unremarkable.)

In winter the temperature in the root cellar is around 2° or 3°C above freezing. There’s no air circulation system, but she’s never noticed any ill effects from ethlylene — not surprising, because most of the foods she stores don’t produce ethylene. (Learn more about the fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene here.)

Alexandrovitch keeps endive, leeks and chicory in pots, in another cold space, this one on her porch. She runs out of those greens sometime in January, but then she’s got all her ferments, plus frozen leeks and kale, kept in her freezer at a neighbour’s place. She has canned goods and grains in the root cellar, and she might drive to town for coffee, butter and oil, but she prefers to use goose fat—she’ll render 6 to 8 litres this year–or pork fat, which she’ll also render.

Alexandrovitch estimated that she spends about 95% of her time growing, processing, preserving and preparing her food. “But what a good way to spend 95% of your time,” she said. “It’s not so hard. It’s just a bunch of work.”

Some of Sheila’s work.

 

Singing the Storage Blues

By Miche Genest

Miche here.   In late October my household of two took delivery of a 35 lb box of local carrots, cabbage, beets and potatoes, part of a fundraiser for a local school. It was not an overwhelming amount, but it did bring up again one of our failures when we built our house in Whitehorse. We forgot to include a cold room.

The family home in downtown Toronto, where I grew up, had a cold room. It was a dank, dark, spidery kind of place, and it was, on one occasion, the lair of a roast beef dinner, stored temporarily during a power outage and then forgotten. The roast beef, peeled potatoes and sliced onions transformed over time into an awe-inspiring, slime-covered monster. (We brought our friends to see it until my mother found out. As I recall she threw the dinner away, roasting pan and all.)

But though not altogether welcoming the cold room did what it was supposed to do—it kept whole, unpeeled, raw root vegetables cool enough for long-term storage.

Now, in present-day Whitehorse, my household doesn’t stockpile local root vegetables because we don’t have a cold space, apart from the fridge.

Instead, we freeze, can, pickle, ferment, and go to the store to buy root vegetables that someone else has stored. Freezing, salting, drying, smoking, fermenting and canning are all technologies key to the long-term storage of food. But only cold storage preserves the vegetable raw, so you can eat a crunchy, home-grown carrot in January or grate a local beet into your coleslaw in mid-March.

Over the next while here at First We Eat, we’ll be exploring food storage ideas from across the north. Tell us: how do you keep your vegetables over the winter? Do you have a root cellar? Do you cover your carrots in sand? Do you wash them first or not? What do you do about cabbage?

In the meantime, I see a lot of kimchi in my future.