Yerba Mate: an introduction
The mate is a type of infusion, original from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil. Yerba mate is the type of herb, rich in caffeine, which is used in this beverage. Unlike tea, the yerba is always present; the mate – also the name of the gourd or container – is filled about 3/4 with the herb, and then the water is poured into it. To drink it, it’s necessary to use a bombilla: a sort of straw with a filter in one end, which goes inside the mate.
The mate dates back to Pre-Columbian times, in the 16th century, but it wasn’t industrialized until the early 1900s. It’s directly related to the indigenous Guaranís: the story tells the Moon came down to Earth, disguised as a woman, to see all its wonders. She was attacked by a jaguar, but a Guaraní hunter managed to saved her. The Moon was so grateful, that in return, she gave their people the gift of Mate. It was incredibly well-received by the natives: so much so, that by the late 16th century, even the Spaniards were drinking mate as well. By early 17th century, it was well spread around the surrounded areas, although the yerba mate wasn’t domesticated by the Jesuits until the middle of the century. Although governor Hernando Arias de Saavedra tried to ban yerba mate (incredible, right?) the beverage’s popularity couldn’t decrease.
Mate is a such a popular drink, people will carry their mate, yerba, bombilla and thermos everywhere they go: a picnic at the park, a day at the beach, or a gathering with friends won’t be complete without a good mate. This popularity is due to many reasons: first of all, it is a tradition that has lasted centuries and is engraved in the population’s idiosyncrasy. Also, this is an infusion that is consumed widely across different countries and regions – much like tea in the United Kingdom, for example. Above all, the fact that is a ‘social drink’ makes it even more beloved: although you can have mate by yourself, it’s far more enjoyable to do it with other people, as part of a social ritual. For example, it becomes a good excuse as a get together – instead of asking someone for coffee, you meet at their place “a matear” (to drink mate). At the same time, friends or family will bond over a round of mate: one person will have the kettle or thermos with the hot water, pouring it into the mate -this is called “cebar“- and the gourd will pass around from person to person. Once a person has drunk their mate, it will return to the “cebador” (who pours the water) so it can be passed on to the next person, and the cycle will continue. This is perhaps the biggest difference, in comparison to an infusion such as tea or coffee, and one of the main reasons why everybody loves yerba mate!
So, as we say in Argentina… Nos tomamos unos mates, che? [shall we drink some mates, ‘che’?]
A Side Note…
I don’t want to nitpick, but the correct word is MATE; please don’t call it maté – it’s simply wrong, and it makes you sound a bit pretentious! I’m genuinely curious to know how the word morphed in that way. In case you’re wondering, the emphasis falls in the first syllable (“má-te”). It’s also never spelled “matte“; you can check in Wikipedia how many different meanings that word has (such as, “paint with a non-glossy finish”) – however, non of them has any relation with this drink.
No! It’s not some sort of drug!