My Mate

Just to clarify, I'm not posting about my friends here, but about 'mate' (pronounced matt-ey), a lovely tea.

I know it's cheesy to come to Argentina and write about the national drink, but I find it sufficiently interesting to force upon you, my dearest readers.

Mate - The tradition

Yerba mate is a traditional South American infused drink, particularly in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. It is prepared from steeping dried leaves of yerba maté (llex paraguariensis) in hot water. Mate is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd. The straw is called a bombilla in some Latin American countries. As with other brewed herbs, yerba mate leaves are dried, chopped, and ground into a powdery mixture called yerba. The bombilla acts as both a straw and a sieve. The submerged end is flared, with small holes or slots that allow the brewed liquid in, but block the chunky matter that makes up much of the mixture.
Thanks for the definition Wikipedia. Here is a personal request from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

So what make Mate interesting?

Mate - An acquired taste:

Basically, the first time you drink it you think 'what the hell is everyone talking about, it's disgusting!' It tastes like a bitter herbal tea, a bit like if you just boiled up some spikey leaves from a holly bush with a few fallen pine cones and necked the mixture. Yet in the same was that you cough your way through your first cigarette, or hold your nose to gulp down your first taste of whisky, mate becomes an acquired taste. It can be drunk with sugar or honey to sweeten it, but true Argentinians will respect you more when you tell them that you drink it 'amargo' (bitter).

Mate - The ritual:

Everyone has different rules for making mate.
I once asked a porteno how many times he used the herb in mate before replacing them for fresh ones. He answered that he would drink mate for 90 minutes, then change the herbs. This sums up the idea of mate for me - it is not a 'drink' that can be measured as a unit per say, but a ritual of time. For a drink with just two components (herb and water), there are millions of different tips and rules for the consumption of mate. Here are some which I have heard of:

  • Shake 'n' bake - Before adding the water, you have to put your hand on top, shake it around and turn it upside down to get rid of some of the dust which can go up the straw.
  • Don't boil water - some people add a bit of cold water or try to judge when the kettle is nearly boiled.
  • Don't disturb the herb - moving the straw around messes it up apparently, bad juju.
  • Yerba Mate, argentina
    Got the urge
  • Create a well - some drinkers are obsessed by creating a little mound of leaves on one side of the cup so that some of them stay dry. Then they pour the hot water into the little 'well' on the other side. No one has ever explained the benefit of this to me, maybe it is so that the leaves in the mound can be added later to keep a more even strength.
  • Don't wash it out - new mate cups must be left with used leaves in them for a week to soak up the flavour. It is a bit like knocking in a cricket bat I guess. Some people are also careful to never wash out their cups, they just tip the herbs away.
  • Amount of herb - The cup has to be filled halfway . . . or 2/3rds . . .or 3/4rs full. I dunno.
  • Never put the straw in after the water - it will disturb the finely balanced eco system in there.

Mate - Sharing culture:

Part of the culture of mate is to share. Families, groups of friends and sometimes strangers with share the drink together. The person who makes the drink has to have the first taste to check that it is OK, then the cup is passed around in a circle. It is quite a nice thing to chat and pass the cup but it definitely takes a while to weed out a the sense of possession over 'your drink'. We are used to having individual portions of tea, coffee, beer etc, but here you'll only see foreigners closely guarding 'their drink'.

Yerba Mate, argentina
selfish git
Mate - The equipment:

There is tons of equipment that goes with this simple drink. Thermals (thermos is a brand name like hoover you know), Metal tins, leather boxes, personalised cups, stands, straws, and special packs of yerba. It is almost like there is a 'mate economy' which employs millions of farmers, bad craftsmen and lunatic enthusiasts.

Mate - The effect:

So now we get down to the real point of mate. The stimulant effect even has it's own name, mateiene (i.e. caffeine). It wakes you up in the morning, gives you an alertness for a couple of hours and cures the worst hang overs. However, the addiction does start to reel you in to the point that the portable kit of a thermos, and special little box becomes increasingly necessary. The stimulating effect of the beverage can be seen below. Finally, it has several ambiguous health benefits / hazards such as - 'being more natural than coffee', 'having lots of anti-oxidants' and possibly being linked to cancer (well it can join the 'club of awesome' with bacon, beer, fags and asbestos).

Yerba Mate, argentinaYerba Mate, argentinaYerba Mate, argentina

Anyway, I will continue to enjoy the drink and work on my master plan to create a new type of mate cup that allows you dip biscuits into the brew. Dragon's Den here I come.

Ciao for now.