Argentina is in the clutches of a nation-wide addiction. It seems every other person is carrying various paraphernalia needed to get their next fix. People of all ages indulge freely and openly, consuming throughout the day, usually in the company of other users. There is even speculation that the new Argentinian Pope Francis, the first South American to hold the papacy, will encourage his cardinals to dabble.
I’m not talking about anything dodgy, rather Argentina’s national drink and cultural obsession: mate.
(Although mate is totally legal, people we have met in Argentina joke about being stopped by customs officials; the dried leaves of yerba mate are herby and green and easily mistaken for marijuana. The traditional vessels and bombilla straws could be taken for exotic pipes and bongs.)
Many cultures around the world have developed habits and social customs associated with drinking hot beverages, often tea. The mate tradition in Argentina is particularly special.
While the word mate is pronounced “mah-tay”, its similarity to the English word “mate” meaning “pal” is pleasantly appropriate. Mate is prepared to share with friends; drinking it is an ceremonious bonding ritual. Refusing an invitation to share mate is a huge insult.
The sociable, community aspect is considered sacrosanct to many Argentinians and mate is almost never drunk alone. It is rare to find a bar/restaurant selling mate and it is not for ordering “to go” – very different from the way busy Europeans and Americans chug down their caffeine hit quickly and thoughtlessly on the way to work.
Mate is the name for both the drink and the vessel it is served in, which is traditionally a hollowed out gourd but can also be made from wood or other materials. The leaves from the yerba mate shrub are dried and used to brew the drink, which tastes like a strong, bitter, grassy green tea.
The mate drink is prepared by whoever is playing the role of cebador/cebadora (the server or “mother”). The mate vessel is filled three quarters of the way with the dried leaves of yerba mate (even small shops in Argentina stock dozens of different varieties and blends – some are mixed with dried citrus peel and other flavours).
The server then places their palm over the top of the mate and shakes it upside down to agitate the smaller, dustier pieces and prevent blockages for a smooth drink.
The water used is not boiling, just hot (around 80*C; kettles in Argentina don’t simply bring water to a rolling boil as in England, but have a nifty setting that allows you to control the temperature).
A small area of yerba mate on one side is dampened carefully, and the bombilla (pronounced bombeesha), the metal straw which filters the liquid away from the leaves as you suck, is inserted into the wet leaves.
Then the water level is topped up ready for the first person to drink. Some people don’t like to take the first mate as it is very strong, and prefer to wait for a later round. Often the server will take the first mate to gauge whether the temperature, sweetness and strength are correct before offering it.
We learnt that the first few mates prepared tend to have a lot of small bubbles at the surface, which indicates the cup is “friendly” and good to drink. The server keeps an eye on the bubbles; once they begin to dwindle, it is time to refresh.
Each prepared mate can brew up to 15 drinks before it is considered lavado, meaning washed (i.e. there is no more flavour).
The cebador/cebadora is responsible for preparing the mate, passing it around (everyone in the group uses the same vessel and bombilla), and topping up the water when needed. It’s customary not to thank the server when you pass the empty cup as this indicates you don’t want any more – instead, you should say “very nice” until you have had your fill.
Some people prefer their mate bitter, and others with sugar or sweetener. Often Argentinians keep mate cups for bitter and sweet brews separate so the flavour is purer.
We learned the importance of curing or seasoning your mate vessel before it is used for the first time. This can be done by preparing the mate drink as normal but leaving the mixture to settle for three days and then emptying and repeating a few times. People also cure their mates with ashes from an asado (barbecue) or with sugar.
Argentinians wax lyrical about the health properties of mate; people I have met say it’s healthier than tea or coffee, is good for the heart, fights cancer etc. I can’t find anything online that suggests these claims are totally watertight. However one point made sense to me: the traditional Gaucho diet was solely enormous amounts of red meat and mate, yet Gauchos remained fit, strong and scurvy free despite consuming very little fresh fruit and vegetables. Can’t argue with that!