h3. An acquired taste
It would be fair to say that mate falls in to that polite category of beverages – along with Fernet – of being ‘an acquired taste’. Pronounced ‘mah-tay’ (as opposed to an informal synonym of friend), this drink infusion is ubiquitous in Argentina and Uruguay.
You’ll see taxi drivers, old ladies in the streets, lovers in parks, and friends in houses cradling a little gourd, taking a sip of mate through a bombilla (straw), and sharing it round. You’ll see it everywhere, and it will only be a matter of time (measured in hours rather than days) before you are offered some.
Image courtesy of Juan Pablo Olmo via Flickr
Mate is particularly popular in the mornings as it contains hefty amounts of caffeine. There are other supposed health benefits. Sure, too much and you’ll be as jittery as a rodeo horse, but it is full of anti oxidants, and erm, other stuff – today it is used in cosmetics and weight loss pills. The benefits first came to the attention of early colonists who wondered how gauchos survived on a diet of purely meat and mate without being affected by scurvy. Its popularity increased in the early 18th century and spread across the Rio de la Plata area.
h3. The ritual of drinking mate
Superficially, mate is a tea infusion drank from a gourd, wooden or metal cup, through a stainless steel bombilla. The tea, called yerba mate, is tipped into the mate (confusing, but the drink is called mate as well as the gourd) about two thirds high. It is filled up with hot (not boiling) water, drank, filled up again and passed to the next person.
Drinking mate is highly ritualised, its conventions and procedures are fixed and never broken. Gringos stirring the tea with the bombilla will, for example, be met with Argentineans diving to recover the mate. It is just one faux pas among many.
Image courtesy of Paz Trujillo Correa via Flickr
So here, The Real Argentina bring you our guide to drinking mate. The dos and don’ts, the order of serving, and a glossary.
Mate – The name of the gourd and the drink. As in ‘Do you want some mate?’
Bombilla – Pronounced ‘bom-BE-Sha’ (double ‘ll’ in Argentina is a ‘Sh’ sound – you are not in Andalucia now, no lisps).
Yerba – The loose tea that comes in half or full kilo bags. Common brands are Nobleza Gaucha, Cruz de Malta, and Rosamonte.
Termo – Flask or Thermos
Lavado – Literally ‘washed’, this is when the mate is spent. All the taste has gone.
h3. How to make mate
Its unlikely that as a visitor you’ll be asked to become the cebador, the person who makes the mate and takes control of filling it up, but it helps to understand the process.
# Fill the mate gourd (this can be a dried gourd, a wooden or stainless steel cup, a horn and, rather grotesquely, a hoof) with yerba about two thirds full.
# Turn it over and agitate with your hand over the hole. This is a token effort to get the dust out. It will stick to your palm, blow it off. Tilt the gourd so the yerba mate is at an angle.
# Pour in cold, or luke-warm, water. Like with coffee and loose tea, this is because very hot water can burn and it will taste nasty.
# Put your thumb over the bombilla and place at a 45 degree angle into the mate.
# Pour hot water, NOT BOILING (in SHOUTY CAPS), into the hole made by the bombilla. The water temperature is key to a good mate. It should be between 70–80°C (158-176°F), this is just when you see the first couple of bubbles appear. Take a few slurps.
# Once the cold water has gone through, then fill it with water and pass it on to the first person in the group. Once they have drunk the mate and hear a bit of a sucking sound, they will pass it back to you. Now this bit is important: the order must always remain the same. No passing it round willy nilly, and it is up the cebador to remember. The sign of a good mate is froth on the top and a bit of dry yerba. Some people add a teaspoon of sugar before each refill – sweet tooth Argentines!
# Continue in this order until the bits float on top.
* Be fairly quick with it. No need to nurse it.
* Compliment the cebador on the mate.
* Share it.
* Take pastries: sweet or savoury.
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