When you think of a country, often one of the first things you associate with that place and culture is some form of food or drink. Belgium – beer, France – fine red wine or champagne, China – green tea, Brazil – a caparianha sitting on the beach in Rio etc…
In Argentina (and a few other South American countries), it is a tea that forms an important part of people’s lives. This tea is called Yerba Mate (pronounced ma-te). It is a bitter tea drunk in a very different way to other types of tea – no tea cup, milk or two sugars needed here. You drink it from a gourd (called mate) and through a metal straw called a bombilla.
So you may be thinking OK, so they have a local type of tea and they drink it in a slightly different way, so what…
I was not aware of the importance of this drink the first time I ever drank it, far from the shores where it originated. I tried it with my brother in South Africa years ago and I thought it was awful, bitter and drunk in the most unusual way. It definitely did not become part of my morning breakfast ritual. But spending nearly two months in Argentina earlier this year, made me realise that mate is much more than just a tea to people there and is actually an integral part of their culture and daily lives.
They drink it any time, anywhere…literally…while working (whether behind a desk or on a construction site), driving, studying, sitting with friends on a sidewalk or in a house or even beside a river or on a hike in the mountains. I even had some whilst standing on top of a rather rickety ladder with a paintbrush in one hand and a gourd of mate in the other. This was a prime example of multi-tasking while we were helping out at a campsite in Bariloche for a few weeks Mate is also drunk fairly constantly throughout the day and you will seldom see an Argentinean not armed with a flask of hot water in one hand ready to prepare some mate. The fact that you could fill up your flask with hot water at any gas station or restaurant along the road (often from very fancy hot water urns outside the stations) illustrated the fanatical approach to this tea.
My second experience with mate (whilst hiking up a mountain in Patagonia with two French guys and another from Belgium) was a lot better than the first in South Africa. This could have been due to the biting cold and incredibly strong wind that was piercing right through the 5 layers of clothing I had on. Whilst sheltering in the forest on the side of a mountain Guy prepared some mate and I have never been so happy to drink something hot in my life and it didn’t matter how bitter it was.
Over the next 7 weeks of my road trip with Guy through Patagonia it became a daily part of my life and one I missed quite a lot when I returned to city life in Santiago, Chile. Travelling in a rather old little Citroen 3CV made for some amazing adventures and mate became a daily ritual on the drive. Firstly it kept us warm since winter had hit Patagonia and the temperatures were hovering in single digits with the unbelievably strong and constant winds decreasing them even further. Besides this, the gaps in the car meant that the temperature inside was pretty much equal to that outside. So as co-driver it was my daily task to fill a flask of hot water from where ever we had stayed the night and then make the mate as we travelled. It was quite easy to drink mate and drive at the same time as the car could never really exceed 40or 50 km/hour. The second function of mate was to provide us with the energy to stay awake whilst driving for many hours each day. Since the speed of the car was relatively slow and often even slower due to unrelenting head winds it would often take 4-6 hours to travel only 200 kilometres or so. Thus we needed something to help keep us awake and focused and mate definitely did the trick.
But I think what I like most about mate is the social atmosphere it creates. Everyone shares the gourd and gets their turn once it has been refilled with hot water for them by the mate maker. This means that everyone is sitting or standing together and chatting whilst enjoying the tea and each other’s company. It makes people take a break from what ever else is happening at that moment. And people in Argentina love nothing more than taking a break for a chat and a sip of mate.
Since mate is quite an acquired taste and is extremely bitter, most locals are very happy and surprised when they see foreigners drinking their local brew. At most gas stations or little towns where we stopped in the desert people would first want to talk about the car and then if they saw our flask for hot water they would smile and ask if we liked mate. They were always pleased with the answer.
From different people along the way I learnt some of the small traditions associated with sharing mate, that again make it more than just drinking a ‘cup’ of tea. And since sharing mate is a sign of friendship and bonding these ceremonial aspects are rather important:
- The mate server (the person who prepares the tea in the gourd and adds the water) drinks first.
- Then they refill the gourd with water and pass it to the next person, making sure that the bombilla (straw) is facing the drinker. This apparently is one way to tell who is a proper mate drinker and who isn’t.
- Once they have finished, they pass it back to the server and the process continues until either everyone has had enough, the hot water is finished or the mate has lost most of its flavour. At this time often more water is prepared and things continue…Argentineans can drink a lot of mate in one day.
- Another thing to remember is that when you pass the gourd back to the mate maker you never say ‘gracias’ if you still want more the next time it is your turn. You only say gracias when you have had enough and do not want another turn. This was very hard for me to remember as I am used to always saying thank you to someone if they give me something.
So, all this talk of mate is making me quite thirsty and I think I may just go and make myself some…