The Secret Art of Mate

Like most first visitors to South America, I had no idea what Yerba Mate was.

Pronounced like mat-tay, this drink is serious business to the Argentine’s. I’m going to go as far as to say, Argentine’s love mate more than Brits love a cup of tea. You can’t walk anywhere in Argentina without seeing a mate cup in someones hand; at a bus terminal, at a local market, at a petrol station etc. Its a highly caffeinated drink you can have morning, noon and night; served in a special cup with a long and interesting history.

My Argentinian friend's selection of mate cups

Originally mate was used by an indigenous tribe called the Guarani, and yerba (the plant from which mate is made) naturally grew in Mbaracayŭ, Paraguay. Mate was so important to the Guarani, the even had two gods in their mythology that helped to protect and harvest the yerba, and they believed the plant had a soul.

The shape of the mate cup is rounded, owing to the fact that pre-Hispanic Andean’s used gourds for plates, cups and bowls – and this was adopted by the rest of Argentina to drink mate. A lot of mate cups today are still identical to the original designs, and a percentage of the cups are made out of metal – this is because at the time, Peru’s silver mines were booming and the upper classes wanted to flaunt their wealth by having mate cups made out of silver. Furthermore, the designs on the sides of the cups were first designed in a baroque style, then later Rococo, owing to the changing fashions in Europe.

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Mate is and was always enjoyed by rich and poor alike. It is usually drunk with a metal straw called a ‘bombilla’ that helps filter the drink, and mostly mate is a communal drink, where the bombilla is shared between a whole group.

The rules of consuming mate is complicated for a foreigner; there is one server, called ‘the cebador’ who makes the mate to their taste with the dried plant and very hot water. Very important that the water is not boiled, a lot of kettles here have a mate setting. The server could make it very strong or very weak, with mint, sugar, milk or anything else depending on their preference. Most of my Argentinian friends make theirs strong and with no accompaniments. The rules are as follows;

Traditionally, the youngest person serves the mate

The server drinks the mate first, then refills the cup with hot water

The mate is passed from server to person, drank, then passed back to server

Every person drinks the whole cup

If the mate cup is accidentally passed from person to person (instead of server), the one receiving the cup must kiss it

If you are handed the cup, you must not say ‘gracias’ as this implies you have had enough mate, and don’t want any more

If you hold on to the mate cup for too long, you will be reminded that mate “no es un microfono”

If one guest gets up from the table, the serving pattern will not be broken, and the server will follow them around the room

The rounds are repeated until everyone has had enough mate

It is important that the server is attentive to their guests and the quality of the mate during every round


In my experience, mate is an extremely bitter drink; coming from a person who drinks ultra strong black tea and coffee. I have sampled it on a few occasions and broken pretty much every rule I just listed above (SAVAGERY!). As I said before, my Argentinian friends make it way too strong for me, however, after a few rounds with our Italian friends who had been in the country for longer than me, I found they made it a lot weaker, more sugary and I was able to drink more than a few sips (I also kept passing it from person to person and there was a lot of cup kissing going on!).

Since then, I have attempted to make my own, and have still found it undrinkable, I’d say if you like green tea, that’s a good starting point to liking mate. There are all sorts of different styles and flavours of yerba mate in the supermarkets, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to taste all of them. One thing I have taken from my mate drinking is the use of a bombilla (Tom bought us one for 35 pesos), that I now use for my loose leaf tea, and don’t know how I survived without one.


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Mate is the social tradition here in Argentina that has been practised for hundreds of years, even our first hostel in Buenos Aires had a yerba wall dispenser. With all the exports originally from South America that are now widespread, such as potatoes, coffee and chocolate, it surprised me that I had never heard of mate before I came to Argentina. This is most likely due to its bitter taste making it seem initially unconsumable, however, a lot of people I talk to say it gets more paletteable every time you try it – so give mate a go.

 

Upcoming post – Bariloche and El Bolson !

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