Watermelon at The Bath House

Delicious and refreshing watermelon

It’s important to stay hydrated at the banya and we have a range of home-made drinks as well as water to quench your thirst.  

This month we also have watermelon! Watermelon is the taste of summer – bright red, sweet and more than 80% water – it’s the ideal way to stay hydrated. Sweet and restorative, watermelon is just the thing after parenie.  

Aside from being delicious and refreshing, what are the benefits of eating watermelon? 

Watermelon contains vitamins A and C as well as potassium, magnesium, amino acids such as citrulline and a number of antioxidants like lycopene. All of these produce the following benefits;

– Lowers blood pressure and acts as a delicious stress reliever

– Promotes good skin and hair health

– Can reduce inflammation and oxidation, combatting conditions like diabetes and heart disease

– Aids digestive health

– Improves mood and increases vitality

Because of its high water content, watermelon has a low calorie density and 100 g of watermelon only contains about 38 kcal. Eating foods like watermelon can help with weight management by keeping you feeling full for longer. 

Watermelon: a brief history

The origins of the watermelon lie in southern Africa where a tough and drought-tolerant ancestor about the size a grapefruit thrived. It was much prized by the indigenous people for its ability to store water and its pulp had a bitter taste.   

It was probably Egyptians farmers who gradually turned it from a small and sour canteen into the larger and sweeter food that we are familiar with today and seeds and paintings of watermelon have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. The Old Testament describes how the Israelites longed for watermelon after Moses led them out of Egypt and ancient Jewish manuscripts record watermelon as one of the foods that could be donated to priests and the poor in the form of a tithe.

The Greeks and Romans saw the medicinal qualities of the watermelon. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates used it as a diuretic as well as to treat children who suffered from dehydration and Pliny the Elder described it as a cooling food in his first century botanical publication, “Historia Natualis”. 

Watermelon followed the trading routes of the ancient world and made its way to India and China and from there to Europe and the New World. By the 17th century it was cultivated widely in those parts of Europe where the climate was suitable, including parts of Ukraine and southern Russia. In 1660 the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich ordered that “watermelon gardens” be planted to produce Astrakhan watermelons for the royal court. Watermelons from Astrakhan and Kherson have always been considered the finest watermelons in the former USSR.  

The watermelon occupies a particular place in the Russian imagination. The word Arbuz begins with A and is often used as the word to denote the first letter of the alphabet and the watermelon was used in Soviet iconography to indicate the prosperity enjoyed by its citizens. In late summer temporary watermelon stores would pop up on street corners everywhere and a day at the dacha or country house was not complete without a slice of watermelon. Watermelon is seen by many as a natural cleanser as well as a symbol of summer in northern towns and cities where the winters are long and arduous.  

We are used to eating them fresh, but you can make jam and honey from watermelons and they can also be pickled in vinegar and spices to be eaten as an accompaniment to grilled meats.  

Come and enjoy the taste of summer and perhaps the taste of your childhood at The Bath House. While stocks last. Please call now 0203 906 2060

Recipe for marinaded melon / watermelon

Prepare the marinade: 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of water, ¾ cup sugar, 2 Tbsp honey, 2-3 cloves, a piece of cinnamon, a little allspice and ½ tsp salt. Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan, boil, cool and strain.

Wash the melon, cut in half, remove core and seeds and cut the flesh into cubes.

Put the cubes of melon into small jars, cover with marinade, close and tie with parchment paper. Put parchment paper in the bottom of a deep bowl. Put the jars in the bowl. Pour water into the bowl to mid-level of the jars and simmer for one hour.

Remove the bowl from the heat and allow it to cool. Remove the jars from the water and store in a cold place. 

Serve the pickled melon as a salad with grilled meat and poultry.

Aunt Sara then appears with some veniks and “in that steam heat began to birch me, very lightly at first…and then harder and harder…until I began to yelp. More steam came belching up, and she turned me over and began to work on my chest and stomach. I was fairly interested by now, for mildly painful though it was, it was distinctly stimulating”.

I will leave the rest to your imagination or you can search out the book. Flashman concludes that “the Russians have some excellent institutions” and that Sara was “undoubtedly my favourite aunt”.

There is no bad time to visit the banya – you can go alone or with friends, you can celebrate, commiserate or meditate there. I moved to Moscow in 1999 and by this time I was generally using the banya to recover from the night before. I usually visited Kransopresnenskaya banya which was most famous for an incident in 1994 when a notorious Georgian gangster was shot by a sniper as he walked out onto the street. S Legkym Parom indeed!

Wherever I travelled for work in Russia or nearby, I would sample the local banya, from small shacks in the countryside to grand urban complexes like Sanduny in Moscow or Arasan in Almaty. I also began to think about opening somewhere back in the UK and, when I moved to London in my 30’s, I researched the contemporary bathhouse scene. There wasn’t much to get excited about. My favourite was probably the Porchester in Queensway had a glorious kidney shaped pool and beautiful tiled rooms with a range of temperatures ranging from the coolest (Frigidarium) to the hottest (Laconicum), but none of them offered the same rejuvenating experience as banyas in Russia.


The Bath Houses of London

At the same time, I learned that London had a rich history of bath houses. These included an opulent Oriental bathhouse opened in 1862 on Jermyn Street by a former British diplomat in Constantinople and a Russian banya on Brick Lane called Russian Vapour Baths, set up by emigree jews who had fled the pogroms of the Tsarist empire for East London.  There were also numerous “bath houses” or laundries where people could go to literally take a bath and do some washing. Look carefully around the city and you will see examples like this one in Kentish Town.

The Bath House – Banya London opened in 2019 and we hope it is a worthy addition to that history.