What can apples be stored in for months at a time? What should never be stored with apples? What did cavemen do? What is a good thing to store fish in? Find out on this episode.
Welcome to Writing Rural with Alley, the fiction writer’s inspiration station for rural life and lifestyles, from historical to post-apocalyptic, helping you bring your rural stories to life! I’m Alley, and this is episode (#) (title). Stick around to the end to find out all the ways things could possibly go wrong. Now, let’s get into this.
Whether your characters have a garden, forage for food, or have meat, there are many methods that are used, have been used, and might be used in an apocalypse. Today, we will cover five more of them.
When I think of sand, I think of sandboxes and beaches. However, sand is a good way to store many root vegetables. This technique has been around since ancient times and is believed to have started in desert terrains. Sand is used to store root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnips, radishes, beetroot, Jerusalem artichoke, and firm flesh fruit such as apples and pears.
To store them, your character will place sand in a box, jar, or other large container. Play sand is recommended in modern times as it will be well cleaned, but others can be used. Your character will want it as clean as they can get it. They will then make the sand damp. The damp sand will help keep moisture out of the food. I don’t have the slightest idea how that works, and I cannot find the science behind it online, but I do know it works. However, too much water in the sand can lead to rotting, so make sure they do not add too much.
When storing, a layer of sand is added to the bottom, then a layer of vegetables, then sand, then vegetables, until it is full, and sand covers the top layer of vegetables. Make sure none of the vegetables touch. This can accidentally speed up the ripening and cause decaying quickly. Another thing is that apples and root vegetables should not be stored together as the apple produces a type of gas that speeds up the ripening process for root vegetables and will lead to overly quick decaying. Carrots and parsnips are best stored vertically.
Remember your character will need to check the food every week to make sure none show signs of rotting, and if they look like they are going to go bad soon, they need to eat them. At the same time, they want to check the dampness levels. Stored like this, food can stay fresh for two to five months, so make sure they are eating it as they go.
Dairy products are one of the hardest things to keep fresh. Cheese-making only seems to make sense. Cheese has been around since roughly 8 to 10 thousand years ago. Cheese making is believed to be an accident. Ancient texts say it was accidentally invented when an Arabic merchant stored milk in a saddle bag made from a sheep’s stomach. He traveled in the desert all day, and that night, he found it had curdled into curds, AKA the solids, and whey, AKA the liquid part. It is said he found the whey satisfied his thirst, and the curds satisfied his hunger.
Cheesemaking sounds complicated but is relatively simple, although individual recipes can be complicated. I will give you a general idea of how it is made, but for individual recipes, you will need to look them up.
First, the milk will be poured into a large pot to warm it to coagulate. Depending on the type of cheese, coagulation can be achieved by either acidification or with a rennet. A rennet is an enzyme that causes the proteins in milk to combine. These enzymes are found in the stomach of young calves (ew!) but can also be microbial, from plant-based or fungus to milk thistle sap. Acidification is when your character combines milk with a starter culture (living bacteria) such as citric acid, lemon juice, or vinegar to increase the milk’s acidity level. Both of these start to separate the curds (what cheese is made from) from the whey (the liquid part).
According to themaual.com,(link in the shownotes on my website) and I quote, “Once the milk begins to solidify, it separates into curds and whey. The milk solids or curds are then cut into pieces to release more of the liquid or whey. The size of the cut curds will affect the amount of liquid retained, which determines the texture of the resulting cheese.
“For a softer cheese, the curds are cut into larger pieces or minimally scored. When making a harder cheese, curds are nearly shredded and then further processed by stirring or cooking to create a drier, more tender texture. Once the curds have reached the desired texture, the whey is drained away, leaving the remaining curd, which will move on to the next steps of salting, shaping, and aging into a cheese.” End quote.
Next curds are drained, usually using a cheesecloth in history. A cheesecloth is a thin cloth made for draining curds but is used for many more things on a homestead. After as much water as possible is drained and wrung out with the cheesecloth, the curds are then placed in molds. These could be loaves, wheels, or any other shape. Some recipes call for salting now. This not only helps get rid of water but also helps to flavor the cheese and is a preservative.
Last, it is time to let the cheese age. Depending on the type, it could be three months to a full year. Aging is done in a low-temperature, low-humidity-place for most cheeses, a root cellar or cave-type environment, if you will. Stored like this, they could be good for years; however, taking them out of this environment can lead to rapid decline and food spoilage, although timing and storage all depend on the type of cheese your character makes and the environment they make it in.
Smoking meat as a way to preserve it is thought to be one of the oldest ways to preserve food. It is believed to be cavemen that accidentally found this, as they likely hung their food to keep animals away from it. When they found fire, they didn’t have ventilation for it in caves or their huts, and that was how they learned to preserve food with smoke. Is that true? How would I know? I’m not that old … yet.
There are three types of smoking today, but I will only cover two as the third requires the meat to already be cooked and preserved and is only adding flavor. It is not a preservation technique on its own.
First is heat smoking. This can be done over a smoky open fire. I’ll tell you the way I think about this one. Basically, it will fully cook like this and dehydrate until you have jerky. If you have never had jerky, it means it is dry both in looks and touch. It will be hard but flexible and not stiff. Well, it could be stiff, but you might have overdone it. It is still edible that way, as I have done that too. Oops.
This open fire later turned into stone, brick, and concrete smokehouses. The meat would be hung, and they would keep a constant temperature of 126 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit until fully cooked. This could take a few days in ancient times with large smokehouses.
The other method is called a pit. Basically, it combines smoking the meat with baking. Your character would place the meat in a wood-burning oven made of stone and keep it there until it was done and dehydrated enough for winter storage.
If smoked and stored correctly, the meat can last for several months.
Freezing food has been around since roughly 3000 BC. It was believed to first be used in China. They had ice cellars to store their food. The art of freezing food has lived strong in northern and southern parts of the hemisphere for centuries. The food is placed outside in the freezing temperatures. However, there is usually a place for this, like a hut on stilts in Alaska. This is to keep the predators out of the food, where you can, and more importantly, away from the home. It was in the 1940s that electric refrigerators started to become commonplace. That said, it is something we do in this area when the weather is cold enough or we lose power, and it is cold enough outside.
15) Olive oil
Olive oil has long been used as a food preservation along with many other uses. It is believed to first be used in the ancient Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Olive oil is technically considered a fruit drink, but I just can’t picture that in my mind. It is great at preserving fish, herbs, and vegetables, onions, peppers, green beans, and tomatoes, to name a few.
This one is fairly simple. Prep the food and place it in the jar. Add a little salt. Pour olive oil over it. Get the bubbles out, and seal. That said, if olive oil is left in the sun and heat, it can go rancid. A cool, dry place is best for storing these all year round.
Fun fact: In 2020, 13.25 billion pounds of cheese was produced in the United States alone.
What could possibly go wrong?
Likely to go wrong: When your character is pouring olive oil and working on getting the bubbles out, they get oil all over themselves. When they pick up the next jar, it slips out of their hand, shattering.
Likely to go wrong: Your character doesn’t drain enough water off the curds when making cheese, causing it to mold before it has a chance to age.
Possible to go wrong: Your character adds too much water to the sand, leaving the vegetables to soak in water. They all soon go bad, leaving your character without food for the winter.
Possible to go wrong: Your character didn’t fully smoke the meat all the way through, and it soon goes rancid.
Unlikely to go wrong: Your character uses dirty sand to store their vegetables, and soon, the bacteria grows out of hand in the sand. When they eat the vegetables, they get food poisoning.
Unlikely to go wrong: Your character leaves fish preserved in olive oil in the sun. When they go to cook it, they find it has turned rancid.
Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character freezes the meat in a building on stilts in a cold climate. When they return to get their meat, they find they have been robbed, and their food is gone.
Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character accidentally shuts themselves in a smokehouse filled with smoke. They soon start having signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. If no one gets them out in time, this could be dead.
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