The coolest room in the house
As our seasons become hotter, we’re increasingly reliant on electrical appliances to keep our houses – and food – cool. We can look to the past for practical ways to harness environmental forces to minimise heat and energy consumption in our homes.
The most important and usually the largest and most expensive appliance in an Australian kitchen is the fridge, which is essential for keeping all manner of foods fresh. But before reliable and affordable refrigeration technologies were developed in the late 1800s, alternative means were used to keep perishable foods fresh and safe to eat. Vaucluse House, which was home to the influential Wentworth family in the 19th century and is now a museum, offers some useful examples.
The dairy, larder and cellars at Vaucluse House are rare survivors in metropolitan Sydney, remnants of a time before artificial refrigeration. The dairy was used for storing milk products, the larder for meat products, and cellars for longer-term food storage. These spaces are excellent examples of clever architectural design that responds to forces of nature to keep food fresh and cool. They were also designed to create suitable environments for food production, such as curing meats and making butter and cheese.
Without refrigeration, milk will not stay fresh for long. Even after commercial dairies were established in the early 1800s, transporting and storing milk in uncontrolled environments was risky. Many people preferred to keep their own milking animals – large households, such as the Wentworths’ at Vaucluse, often kept at least one house cow for fresh milk, while smaller, inner-urban homes might have a ‘milch’ or milk goat. (By the 1840s goats were deemed a pest in Sydney, with fines against owners who allowed them to stray or cause damage to property.)
Milk and cream have traditionally been used to make a variety of products that keep longer. Butter, yoghurt (or curd) and fresh cottage-style cheeses were once commonly made in the home, usually by the woman of the house or, in very wealthy or substantial properties, a dedicated dairymaid or dairyman.
When plentiful, the cream skimmed from cow’s milk was made into butter. (Goats produce cream but it’s not well suited to butter making.) Butter is made by churning (agitating) the cream until its fats bind together, expelling liquid content (buttermilk) from the cream.
To make yoghurt and cheese, milk is warmed to a certain temperature (depending on the type of product) and a culture is added. This causes a fermentation process that separates the milk solids (curds), which, as they solidify, naturally dispel liquid (the whey).
Cheesemaker Kristen Allan demonstrates this process in the cellars at Vaucluse House.
‘Ooh, delicious … you can see the whey being released’
Artisan cheesemaker Kristen Allan
Fresh cottage- or ricotta-style cheeses are simpler to make as they only require an acidic medium such as lemon juice or vinegar to ‘split’ the milk into curds and whey rather than a live culture. A variety of cheeses could be produced by following different curing methods, such as washing rinds with salty water or port wine, or developing ‘good’ moulds that influenced their textures and flavours.
The different styles of cheese keep for varying lengths of time; harder and drier styles generally keep for longer than soft and curd cheeses. Some households had dedicated cheese rooms where cheeses were left to mature or undergo various treatments. John Piper, a prominent member of colonial society, had more than 50 cheeses in the cheese room at his property near Bathurst when he died in 1851.
Similarly, fresh meat needed to be processed to avoid spoilage – wet or dry cured with salt and sometimes smoked (corned beef and bacon are products of these techniques), or cooked and preserved in clarified butter or jelly used as a seal to prevent contact with air (as we still do with pâté today).
These processes have long traditions in Britain and continental Europe, but the often hot and humid Australian climate posed particular challenges for keeping these products cool.
Dating to the late 1820s, the dairy, larder and cellars at Vaucluse House were kept cool by relatively simple but practical design measures that worked with, or manipulated, natural elements – sunlight, earth, wind, water and fire.
The locality [of the dairy] is usually fixed near to the house; it should neither be exposed to the fierce heat of the summer’s sun nor to the equally unfavourable frosts of winter – it must be both sheltered and shaded.
Isabella Beeton, The book of household management, 1861, p1,005
First and foremost is positioning.
The dairy and larder are located at the southernmost end of the kitchen wing; this orientation ensures they receive the least amount of light and heat from the sun. The dairy is on the eastern side, and timber boards above the stone wall at the eastern end of the room block the morning light.
The larder is on the western side, which is more exposed to the sun, but is protected in other ways, outlined below. Today the rooms are painted white, emulating the limewash that was commonly used to keep the rooms light without direct sun. In hot, sunny weather, the windows could be covered to further limit light penetrating while still allowing airflow, with loose-hanging canvas or hessian soaked in a solution of lime to prevent mould forming in the humidity.
The cellars at Vaucluse House are beneath the residential wing, which was built in the late 1830s. Each chamber has a single unglazed window in the upper reach of its western wall, just above ground level, which admits ambient light (and air) but no direct sunshine.
The dairy, larder and cellars are dug into the ground, which naturally stays cooler than the surface temperature. The larder is sunk lower than the dairy, but due to the slope of the land,the main storage area is almost at ground level at its far end. The cellars are almost entirely below ground level. The walls of these rooms are made of sandstone, which cools down overnight and takes time to warm up during the day. Similarly, the stone benches in the dairy retain the cold. They may originally have been topped with white marble, as its hard, smooth surface is easier to keep clean.
Wind and air
Warm air rises, and the unglazed windows just below the roofline in these rooms help to draw warm air out. The windows in the dairy and larder are covered with mesh, to keep out flying pests while allowing air to flow through. Any warm or heated foods, such as freshly drawn milk still warm from the cow or heated for other purposes, could be placed on the benches to cool in narrow-based vessels or sitting on a trivet to reduce contact with the benchtop. Steam or heat emitted from the vessels would be drawn up and out of the room, minimising the effect on the products stored in the bays below.
A key feature of the dairy is a vent at floor level in the northern wall, which draws cool air from underneath the adjoining building. The room abutting the dairy was a cook’s room or dry-goods store and is now the museum staffroom. Accessed from the main kitchen, this room is raised above the floor level of the kitchen to protect it from damp that might creep up from the ground in wet weather. This also creates an airspace between the floorboards and the ground below. When you stand near the vent in the dairy, you can feel at your ankles the cool air coming from under the floor. This naturally pushes warmer air upwards and out through the mesh windows.
A key feature of the dairy is a vent at floor level … that draws cool air from underneath the house.
Water also plays a part in keeping the spaces cool. Rainwater run-off from the kitchen wing roof is conducted along a channel on the eastern side of the house, which meets a drain in the courtyard. In very wet weather, the volume of water is often more than the drainage system can cope with, and a letter in the Wentworth family archive mentions the cellars flooding, which suggests that drainage was always a problem. Water can still be seen running under the flagstones in the cellars after heavy rain.
The water channel does not extend along the edge of the dairy, and as the dairy and larder are sunk into the ground, any water seeping underground would naturally dampen their stone-flagged floors, helping to keep the rooms cool. Damp marks are often visible on the floors of the dairy and larder today, even more so in the latter, due to the slope in the land.
Damp and humidity are elements we usually work against in our homes, but the damp environment makes these rooms perfect for ripening cheese. This was one of the factors that Kristen Allan was keen to explore as ‘artisan in residence’ at Vaucluse House, to see how handmade cheeses respond to the environments in the dairy, larder and cellars. Although somewhat constrained by the museum environment and because the rooms are not maintained for food production, Kristen matured several cheeses during her residency. Each cheese took on a different character depending on the maturing method she applied, but the results were also influenced by the ambient microflora present in these rooms, which produce different kinds of mould on the rinds. You can see Kristen making cheese in the cellars at Vaucluse House here.
While heat was the enemy, it was a necessary part of the preservation process for many dairy and meat products. Although pasteurisation was not scientifically understood until the 1860s, it was known that scalding helped to keep milk ‘sweet’ for a longer time, and as noted above, milk needed to be heated to make yoghurt and cheese. Similarly, a heat source was required to refresh brine (a strong solution of salt and water) used to cure and store pickled or ‘corned’ meats by reboiling or replacing the solution to minimise the risk of spoilage.
… the scullery of the dairy, with a boiler for hot water, and a sink with cold water laid on, which should be plentiful and good… will be used for churning, washing, and scrubbing …
Isabella Beeton, The book of household management, 1861, p1,006
The short passageway that separates the dairy and larder at Vaucluse House leads to the scullery, which is essentially a wet room where washing-up was done and hot water was ‘on tap’ for use throughout the household. Water was not plumbed into Vaucluse House until the 1860s, so this water was heated on a fuel stove, or range.
The stove was also used to heat water to wash utensils and other equipment, their cleanliness essential to food safety. The range is set into the northern wall of the scullery, backing onto the main kitchen, keeping the heat it generated well away from the adjoining larder and dairy rooms.
… taking care to keep everything sweet and clean, so that no disagreeable smells may arise from the gravies, milk, or meat that may be there. These are the principal duties of a cook in a first-rate establishment.
Isabella Beeton, The book of household management, 1861, p1,006
Visitors to Vaucluse House can experience these spaces firsthand and feel their different atmospheres and ambiences. The food smells – residual odours from lactic acids in butter, ammonia-like or mouldy ‘funk’ from maturing cheeses, the vague smokiness of hams and the slightly acrid piquancy of fermenting fat on cured meats – may have faded with time, but the temperature and humidity inside these spaces are often noticeably different from the conditions outside. Even on a warm day and with the doors left open rather than closed as they would have been, the walls feel cold to the touch and cooling dampness can be felt rising from the floors.
Today we rely on electricity to keep our food – and often our whole houses – cool at increasing expense, not just financial but also environmental. We can learn from the architecture of the past that worked in concert with the elements, harnessing those that were useful and designing ways to combat or mitigate others, to create cooler spaces in our homes, naturally.