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The Yerba Mate Story
In Argentina all business shuts down from noon to 5 PM during the warmer months while people go home to have lunch with their families. This is followed by a two hour siesta. At around 4:00 PM it's time for yerba mate. During our recent trip to Argentina to visit my wife's family, we had little choice but to adopt this custom.
During a visit with my in-laws I experienced my first mate. Edwardo heats up the water and gets out the mate cup and bombilla. The mate cup is usually pear shaped and made from wood, calabasa (a small gourd), alpaca (silver and other metals), cow horn or porcelain covered steel. The bombilla, a stainless steel straw with a rounded filter on the bottom end and a gold tip on the top, is used to sip the mate. The gold tip prevents the straw from becoming too hot for the lips. The filter keeps the herb from coming through the straw. Edwardo fills the cup about half full with yerba mate, inserts the bombilla, and pours in the hot (not boiled) water. He drinks the first cup ensure the guests don't ingest any of the small particles that may seep through the filter with the first cup. He refills the cup and passes it to me. It is proper to drink the whole cup and pass it back to Edwardo, who refills it with water. I found this out the hard way by taking one sip and passing the cup to the next person. The others chuckled and explained etiquette to me. (At this point the yerba (herb) we started with is still in the cup.) After another refill it is passed to Ana, my wife. She drinks it all and gives it back to Edwardo. The ritual continues in this manner around the circle to Maria, Hector, Carolina and Pedro. Now you've been introduced to my wife and all her brothers and sisters, some of the nicest people I know.
After drinking a few rounds of mate I quickly understood how it became the national drink of Argentinaand why mate time is such a treasured tradition among these people. The feeling from the strong dose of mate is quite awesome. It's clearing, relaxing and energizing all at the same time; the aroma is entrancing. The social aspect is reminiscent of Native Americans sharing the peace pipe around the fire. Whether at the beach, on the road, on a camping trip, in a motel, at work or at home, when it is mate time in Argentina, everything else can wait. Friendships are strengthened daily by sharing mate.
Since I've been back home with my newly purchased mate cup and bombilla, my family and I have discovered the value of drinking many healthful herbs and tea blends in the mate way. There's no need to use a tea bag, tea ball or strainer. You can pack as much herb as you like in the cup and enjoy many strong doses by refilling the cup over and over. We have tried it with peppermint, nettles, chamomile and medicinal tea blends, all with great results.
First consumed by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, commercialized by 17th century Jesuit missionaries and utilized two centuries later by gauchos (the Argentinean cowboy), yerba mate is now a $350 million dollar industry that employees more than 400,000 people. Yerba mate is native to the South American countries of Brazil and Paraguay. It was used as a beverage long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Most of the Brazilian and Argentinean production is now cultivated and much of the Paraguayan production comes from wild plants. Yerba mate is an evergreen tree that reaches a height of 60 to 90 feet, although the cultivated versions are kept at 12 to 18 feet. This finicky shrub grows only in locations with iron-rich, acidic soil and a semi tropical climate with at least 57 inches of rain per year. This means it only grows in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.
Traditionally yerba mate is processed by cutting the smaller branches off the trees and toasting them for a moment over an open fire to reduce the moisture content. This is known as "supeco". Further drying is done by heating over a platform of poles suspended over an open fire for 12 to 24 hours. Threshing separates leaf from bark and twigs. Further grading by sifting is done, then the product is packed in large bags and aged for 6 to 18 months. More modern machinery and techniques are now utilized in the larger operations.
The yerba consists of three components: palo (stem), hoja (leaf) and polvo (powder). Although the leaf is most popular, all components are used in some countries. Many times yerba mate is blended with other traditional digestive herbs such as peperina, boldo, mentha and poleo. In some countries sugar is added to sweeten the beverage; in others it is preferred straight.
Caffeine levels in yerba mate range from .2% to 2% (levels decline as the leaf ages) compared to 1 to 2% in coffee and 2% to 4% in black tea. The herb also contains vitamins, proteins and minerals including vitamins C, B1, B2, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron and calcium. Mate has bitter qualities which help stimulate digestion. It has been used traditionally as a tonic, nervine, mild diuretic and stimulant.
Although in many South American countries yerba mate is the most popular beverage, it has only recently become known in Europe and the United States as an alternative to coffee and black tea. It's sure to become more and more popular in the near future. If you're ever in Argentina and someone offers you a mate, now you'll now know what to expect