A Mate for These Unprecedented Times

Yerba mate — [MAH-teh], a tea to drink with both hands

Mate for one

On my recent trip to Argentina with a non-Argentinean, the only common thread tying together the spontaneous and brisk days, was mate. Any moment between sunrise, lunch, and dinner is an excuse for mate. A quick hello turns into a sit-down visit with the turn of the stove’s knob. Strangers somehow become acquaintances or friends faster as the gourd is passed, and the mood turns comfortably informal.

This is how I perceive it anyways, having grown up watching my parents pass the thermos with boiling water in all settings from the kitchen table to the car, to the beach- eagerly anticipating the day I would join in creating a circle, or triangle at least. With hindsight, the obsession with mate perhaps was due to our life abroad, and the gourd aided in the dangers of deracination. I don’t recall thinking much of it, as within the tight community we had formed of family friends, mainly of the same cultures, mates were typically passed and siped back and forth. There were the times, however, when friends from school would come over, and I was presented with the task of explaining the bizarre origin of the oval artifact left on the kitchen table. Within a few months, I was running a Pecha Kucha in my mind, knowing exactly when to cue a spontaneous point at the Argentinean flag on the pinboard or capturing the audience by inviting my friends to give it a try. This was my favorite part. I still have vivid images of the faces made at the moment the bitter (and probably boiling) infusion touched their lips, somewhere between sucking on a lemon and snacking on sour gummies. At the time, all I could taste was something we would refer to as acidity.

There is no set age for begging to drink mate, I believe, or initiation period. Much like coffee or tea, a slow and sweet transition to the bitter stuff begins with a few drops in milk and sugar, then periodically the loss of milk and the sugar.

In my house, mate is drunk bitter and hot, in the afternoon with orange or lemon peel perhaps. I later discovered, this is not always the case; many prefer adding sweetener to the water or directly to the tea.

Illustration by Miriam Brugmann

Perhaps this is a good moment to break down mate, its cultural significance, and preparation.

Much like any region of the world with shared borders, cultural disputes always arise when it comes to food. In South America, we are still all fighting over the heritage of the empanada, and the rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina is perhaps first in mate and dulce de leche, football second (do not hold me to this).

Mate is the national beverage of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina and originates from the Guaraní and Tupí people who populate these countries.

The yerba-mate, a herb from the holly genus family, is cultivated by the yerbateros in warm climate northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

This infusion of friendship is prepared with four basic components, in a four-step process.

The components:

Yerba-mate (or simply, yerba): The leaves of this herb are brewed for a mate.

The gourd: Almighty mate vessel.

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The bombilla: Silver/ metal straw with a perforated end, aiding to filter the infusion from the loose leaves

The thermos: Containing hot water that will be poured over and over into the gourd.

The process (mine at least, as there are infinte variations)

1. Water needs to be heated but not boiled, ideally between 65–80.C This is mate temperature. In the meantime, the gourd can be prepared. Traditionally the recipients are made from a hollowed and dried calabash gourd. Today, however, mate vessels range from the very rustic cow foot found in the gaucho ranches, for instance, to the very modern plastic keep-cup styles with functional advantages such as easy loose tea removal, but not so pleasing to the hand if you ask me.

In the gourd, the yerba-mate is poured, creating a little mound, not surpassing the rim of the recipient. With a few soft pats from the palm, the yerba is arranged at an angle.

OPTIONAL: The constant debate of whether mate should be shaken to obtain a less powdery drink occurs at this stage. There are many variations, though I wish to instruct the simplest and most effective method I have come to enjoy- no shaking needed.

2. Next, the bombilla, or metal straw is placed in the gourd. The tricky bit is not disturbing the angle created in the previous step. The bombilla should be inserted perpendicular to the angle.

3. Next, the bombilla, or metal straw is placed in the gourd. The tricky bit is not disturbing the angle created in the previous step. The bombilla should be inserted perpendicular to the angle.

4. Before beginning to brew, the mate needs to be filled with cool water, preserving the mound and allowing the water to be fully absorbed. This step is crucial as it will protect the yerba-mate leaves from being scalded by the hot water.

5. The mate can now be brewed. At the desired pace, the hot water is poured into the gourd, in the space next to the yerba, minding to always leave the top of the little mountain dry. Once consumed, the gourd is filled and passed around, clockwise, always.

Reading over this method, I realize how complicated it seems, but I promise it does not come close to any French recipe, and countless tutorials on youtube make all the wordiness a quite simple four-step process- some made by football stars even, spreading the mate love.

Needless to say, there are countless variations and additions to these steps, depending on the region and lineage to the origins and room for play. The best way of drinking a mate is to each their own.

My non-Argentinean traveling companion was not a newbie to mate. Before the trip, any gathering at my house was a good enough occasion for a mate show and tell from my family. Mate is hard to escape, you see, and even harder to say no to. I wonder if, for visitors new to Argentine culture, the seemingly friendly and welcoming gesture seems imperative or forceful. If so, I guarantee an invitation into a mate circle is nothing but for company’s sake.

Back in London, retelling stories from the trip, mate’s omnipresent reign did not fall short. Though I worried when leaving him alone with my grandpa and the language barrier, I was pleased to discover mate found its way between the two, as they passed the gourd around enjoying the afternoon’s silence. This was perhaps his most peaceful moment in a two-month-long trip, as almost every other moment was spent amidst conversations, catching up and chit-chat all in the quick and foreign tongue.

There are the family mates, usually accompanied by at least a dozen facturas (pastries), each filled with their own 1/4 kilo of dulce de leche. Then the mates with friends, a tradition which begins around the age of fourteen, when sharing a mate is a good enough of an excuse to get together and pass the time simply. This is how I was lured in during a trip back home as a teenager. There was a charming innocence in knowing something with no defying nature could be passed around in a circle for the sake of sharing a moment. Mate is a companion and witness of the hours in between. It accompanies the passing from morning to noon and carries one through the afternoon.

The second observation made by the non-Argentinean traveling companion is how strong mate is. Some say a mate day will go by very differently compared to a non-mate day. The strength of the drink stems from the yerba. The herb is caffeine-rich, something my mother, like many others, would deny. Despite her denial, every time the yerba would run out at home, her mood would warn us. Years of regular mate drinking, these displays of rising temper are most probably due to the high tolerance she possesses. Much like with any other caffeinated drink, the body will quickly send us signals, demanding its intake for “normal” functioning.

As most of us find ourselves staring at the picture frames on our living room walls more than ever before, months in out and back into confinement, and feeling particularly nostalgic, I felt the sudden need for a mate.

Illustration by Nate Williams

Having the paraphernalia at hand, and especially eager to try a new yerba brought back from the trip, I prepared my brew. Despite my inner Argie, I had not touched the stuff since our arrival in January except for a few occasions. With not many friends sharing the custom, I rarely make it for myself.

That day, however, was meant to be a mate day. I made enough space for the gourd, thermos, and a tea towel on my desk and readied myself for another day working from home, except this day I had company. Only a half a liter in, I started to feel my computer screen swaying and could my heart be beating a little faster? I quickly blamed this all on my new prescription, it was my eyes adjusting. Within a few more mates in, I was dizzy. But how? I have been drinking the stuff since my adolescence and considered myself fully initiated.

That’s when I finally realized my non-Argentine traveling companion was right, mate can be very strong. Especially when drinking a 1L thermos meant to be shared, solo.

This little incident got me thinking about the etiquette to mate drinking and its social stance. When not passed around in a circle or over a chat, mate truly becomes a mate. In the early mornings or late evening, he helps us meet deadlines. The key lies in finding the right rhythm between the hand, gourd, silver straw, and the mouth.

With this small act of self-care, I invite anyone out there that might have some yerba-mate brought back as a souvenir to give it a try. Creating the little mound in the gourd (any mug will suffice), is the closest I’ve come to a zen moment in this murky period stuck at home. Currently, family chats on zoom have all been accompanied by the virtual pass of the mate, pouring and sipping acting as the only breath between the chattering.