Food & Drink

Wash it All Down

On the banya


When they tell you about the banya, they usually start by explaining that you will get beaten. The Slavic sauna, they say, is like every other sauna except that, at some point, a man will pick up a bundle of birch twigs and tell you to lie down.

He will press some cold wet leaves on your face, then he will gently whip you, back and front, as others watch. They tell you that afterwards the man will make you jump into an ice bath, and you will not want to put your head in the water, but he will make you do it. You will, in time, realise that he was right, and had your best interests at heart. You will get very hot then very cold, and you will feel great.

What they do not say is that the odd, not wholly unerotic experience will not end there. Once you have recovered from your beating, you will sit at a table in a restaurant, on a wipe-clean couch, and you will eat without putting any clothes on. Some sour cream may well end up over your naked thigh, or on your damp swimsuit. A slippery pickle may land on your wet stomach. Again, not wholly unerotic.

Is the banya a sensual place? Yes, without a doubt. Is it a sexual one? Even Russia isn’t sure. Then again, what would Russia know? As academic Ethan Pollock wrote in his book on the topic, “before there was Russia, there were banyas”. When Herodotus wrote of the tribes north of the Black Sea in 440 BCE, he noted their fondness for baths. Ibn Rusta, a Persian geographer and explorer, did the same in the 10th century.

Around two hundred years later, the Primary Chronicle – a history of the people of Kievan Rus, the eastern and northern European state which eventually gave birth to, among others, Ukraine and Russia – was written. In it, the unknown author spoke of hot, humid rooms, birch beatings and cold water. The banya, as the saying goes, is older even than the tsar.

For a millennium it was a conflicted and conflicting place, where people went to cleanse themselves after sex but also to have sex with each other. The steam both purified people and led them back towards sin.

Banya No.1, hidden away near Old Street in east London, has not existed for a thousand years, and it is not a den of sin. It opened in 2012 and is a rather more sedate affair. You must book a slot in advance, then be guided to your personal booth. Treatments are also sorted ahead of time and run like clockwork.

Still, there is something quietly thrilling about eating a meal when so much flesh is on display. Back in 2000, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of A Cook’s Tour in Russia, where he visited the banya. In one of the scenes, he and his guide are sitting topless, towels around their waists, sharing food and alcohol.

“Some smoked meats, country bread, some smoked…” he tells the camera. He pauses. “What kind of fish is that?” he asks. The question doesn’t get a definitive answer. Bourdain still tucks in, gnawing on pieces of skin with his teeth, his chest glistening with sweat.

Back in London, the fish is definitely herring, and it is salted and served with slices of sharp, raw onion, a marriage made in heaven. The mushrooms are pickled too, as are the Georgian gherkins.

Other cold foods include Ukrainian salo, which struggles to look appetising. What is salo? Simple: it’s pure pork fat. Sometimes it also features pig skin, or is marbled with meat. Here, it is neither. The slabs are white as snow, naked as the day they were born. Italian lardo can, at least, rely on its slices being paper thin, but now is not a time for subtlety – you are recovering from being very hot and very cold and what you need is thick slabs of fat, placed on even thicker slabs of rye bread.

Some may wash it down with beer, but here that feels like the wrong choice. An ice-cold shot of vodka, downed in one, cleanses the back of your throat and prepares it for what is to come. A bite from the pickle that was placed on top of the glass acts as a palate cleanser.

While the kitchen gets to work on the other dishes, you may as well go spend some more time in the sauna. Sweat out the salt, sweat out the booze, watch as others get beaten in front of you, jump in the ice pool, return to your seat. Somehow life feels lighter than it did 20 minutes ago. “Steam your bones and your whole body will be cured,” the Russians say, and you will come to believe that they are correct.

If you require more convincing, you may turn to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolay Karamzin, and countless others. In Notes from the House of the Dead, the former writes of convicts being let out at Christmas and allowed to go to the banya, much to the horror of a nobleman. As Pollock writes, “Dostoevsky’s Siberian banya was a no-man’s land, a liminal space, beyond good and evil and thus well suited for his exploration of morality.”

The banya turns up in The Brothers Karamazov as well where, Pollock continues, “Dostoevsky’s banya represents ambiguity – a place of sinful birth and disgust, as well as sanctity and wonder.” Conflict, always conflict, but never mind that. More food is here to be eaten.

There are now pelmeni in front of you, pillowy dumplings made of thick dough and “meat”. The menu did not reveal which animal it comes from. Eating them doesn’t either, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you dip them in melting sour cream first. They’re meant to be eaten with a fork but, if no-one is watching, you can and should pick one up with your hand and lick your fingers afterwards. Be careful – some dill may end up under your fingernails.

The red, nearly burnt-orange borscht should be eaten with a spoon. There is no other way to pick up the pieces of beetroot and cabbage, and all that sour cream hiding at the bottom of the bowl. That’s the secret of Slavic cuisine: about half the dishes are vehicles for sour cream. No one is complaining.

To wash it all down you should be drinking Banya No.1’s homemade kvass, a fermented drink made from rye bread and honey. It is sold by the half litre and the litre but really, you could drink it by the gallon. If you want to imagine the taste, picture a Breton cider and subtract the apples. It’s sour and fizzy. People have been drinking it for over a thousand years.

In fact, people have been eating all of this for centuries and centuries. Salo, it is said, was first eaten in ancient times. Pickles predate Jesus Christ. Northern Europeans ate salted herring in medieval times. No-one quite knows when humans started putting meat in dough, but it isn’t a recent development. Borscht was written about as a staple in Kyiv in the 16th century by merchant and traveller Martin Gruneweg. “Ruthenians rarely or never buy borscht,” he recounted in his diary, “because everyone prepares it at home, as it is their everyday food and drink.”

The banya isn’t really sexual but it is sensual, in the way that very old things can sometimes be. We have always had flesh and skin and heat and steam and food. It is reassuring to be reminded that we will always have those things.

There are tensions in the banya but that is the point. As anthropologist Dale Pesman wrote while researching Russian life in the 1990s, “the fact that baths are a locus for meeting and promiscuity, dirt and purity, power and equal- ity, heat and cold, sobriety and drunkenness, health and illness, communion with others and contact with one’s own ‘deepest’ needs, as well as drink, song, and healing, makes them dushevnyi – anything that unites things is.”

A Russian friend of Pollock’s once told him that “a person in a banya today might experience something akin to what a person experienced in a banya one hundred, or two hundred, or even one thousand years ago. Nothing here is new. The banya is eternal.” It has outlived millions, and it will outlive you. Long live the banya.

This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here