With my Blow the Budget burning a very small hole in my pocket and needing to be spent by the end of the month – use it or lose it - I couldn’t stop thinking it should be donated to a Ukrainian good cause and be done with this month’s blow out. This however would defeat the object of the task, so I took the Budget to a good home in the guise of a Ukrainian Bath House - otherwise known as a Banya - near Old Street, where you pay to sweat out your toxins while filling your boots with cheap vodka and borsch kombucha.
Now, I have to lay my cards on the table and admit that I was not totally comfortable visiting a Russian Ukrainian bath house during this incredibly difficult time, but as a third generation Ukrainian - my family on my father’s side were from Zhtomyr I wanted to illustrate the point that the current war is not with the Russian people but with a psychopathic nut job and his bunch of cronies.
Introduced to the concept of banya by a friend whose description of the 3-hour session had me gripped I headed off with a colleague, who was game-on mostly due to my opening offer of free non-Russian vodka.
Housed off the beaten track in a modern apartment building near Old Street, Banya No.1 blends the traditions of the authentic banya with the facilities of a modern spa. Banya No.1 comprises a good sized Public Banya, an iced plunge pool and a dining area serving traditional, home-made Eastern European food and drinks.
Setting off with some trepidation, we stopped off en-route for a pre-Banya shot of Absolut (Swedish), to put our minds at ease and to get a taste for where we were headed.
Amid the ongoing gentrification of the Old Street area, Banya No 1 was easy to find. and we were warmly welcomed by the owner who was proud to share with us that we had just missed Tracey Ulman, that 90% of his workforce were Ukrainians and that we would have the whole banya to ourselves.
The protocol was as follows; grab your swimmers and a towel, pop a funny looking wool hat onto your head - apparently this cools you down! - then venture between an incredibly hot steam room, a freezing cold oversized wooden tub and a wood panelled booth where you are expected to cool down, dry off and rehydrate before starting the whole process again. I will take this one stage at a time and focus particularly on the rehydration and drinking ritual…. as this is the general purpose of Blow the Budget and there is only so much you can say about going from immense heat to freezing.
The instructions are simple and once we had been given our chill-out booth, where we relax after each ‘banya’, we hurried into our first round in the steam room, where we met a chap who appeared to be a regular – so much for having the place to ourselves, this was guess work as he didn’t speak much English but he knew exactly how to throw water into the oven to create an intense heat that knocked us for six. Beyond this the only other thing we gleaned from his expertise was to keep our bodies lying at the same level within the steam room and to stay away from alcohol until you have had your Parenie, the ‘invigorating thermal massage’, performed by a large man armed with ‘leafy and fragrant bundles of birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs’ smacking your body in the superhuman heat chamber, ie. the steam room.
This is all you need to know about the practicalities of the banya as the focus of this exercise was how we stayed hydrated and what we rewarded ourselves with for surviving the experience.
Hot and bothered from our first session, we settled into our wood panelled, leather padded booth. Parched and in need of rehydration, we decided to check out the menu and see what local delicacies might be on offer. Drawn very much to the full-page photos of two unfamiliar bottles of drink, one orange colour and one purple, we opted to try a homemade Kvass No.1, rye bread and honey.
For those of you who don’t know what Kvass is - I certainly didn’t - its a fermented cereal - based non-alcoholic or low alcoholic (0.5–2% proof) beverage with a slightly cloudy appearance, light-brown colour and sweet-sour taste. It is traditionally flavoured with berries, fruits, herbs and honey. The homemade Rye Bread and Honey variant that we chose tasted very much like a light kombucha, with bits of floating rye bread in it. This inclusion stems from dried rye bread being used before being extracted with hot water and incubated for 12 hours at room temperature, after which bread yeast and sugar is added to the extract and fermented for 12 hours at 20°C.
Next up, and after a couple more rounds of banyaing and a bizarre twig beating, we ventured for homemade Kvass No. 2 Beetroot.
Beetroot as an ingredient should come as no surprise to anybody visiting a Banya, as Kvass stems from the north-eastern part of Europe (Ukraine and Russia), where the grain production is thought to have been insufficient for beer to become a daily drink. The first written mention of kvass is found in the Rus'Primary Chronicle, describing the celebration of Vladimir the Great's baptism in 996. These people were also partial to the taste of beetroot, but that’s a story for another time. On the taste front the Kvass No.2 was pretty much the same as Kvass No.1 but with a far more beetrooty accent which made it more sour tasting and intriguing.
Just over three hours later, we’d pretty much taken all the heat and cold that we could bear, so decided to call it a day and finish off in the booth with an ice-cold beer and shot of Ukrainian vodka. Without any real discernible taste to either of these drinks we downed them both with great satisfaction and with a little pride that we had survived the banya, neither of us looking any more foolish than you would expect wearing very little apart from a strange wool hat.
Tired and content, supported by boosts to our immune system, improved circulation, and reduced stress, like Mrs Ulman and Mr Ben before us, we went back through the changing room, emerging out of an alternative world back into the real world of Old Street and the familiar chaos of the city around us.