The hot drink championed by Argentinians (and to a greater extent, Uruguayans…oh and to a lesser extent, Paraguayans and Chileans) has finally made its mark on my travels here, as I always knew it would.
There is much to love about mate
- It is herb based, which we know that now in the day and age of the hipster and the pseudo-hippie is well coveted.
- It is a ritual which takes time to prepare and enjoy. Water must be the right temperature, and is constantly refilled (no sculling allowed). The yerba (herb) is added in a particular way and must be constantly re-steeped before continuing to drink. Only a few sips will make it through before the water runs out. Even though the water is not all that hot, it’s still altogether too hot to drink quickly – especially having been syphoned through a metal straw. All this means that deciding to drink mate will occupy several minutes of your day – and make you stop and relax in the process.
- It comes with accessories. These include a kettle with special setting to heat water to around 70 or 80°C (not boiling!) or smaller often plastic mate gourds for camping. Even a combination self-filling mate/thermos to avoid that pesky continual refilling with water (very popular with office workers).
Mate gourds (more commonly called mates also) can be made from any number of especially fabulous materials, including pumpkins, wood, horns, metal and leather. They are also very often attractively decorated or adorned with carvings or metal piping. Winner.
- There is no caffeine low. While amounts of caffeine (sometimes called mateine as a result of being found in mate) contained are pretty violently contested, there is no euphoric high followed by crashing nail-biting low, which just has to be considered fabulous.
- It does not discriminate. Mate is drunk by all social classes, all over the shop. It is readily available and affordable and I am sure that even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, is served mate daily by her minions.
- It is really quite inconvenient. A lot of equipment is needed to drink mate: the mate itself (and you need a lot), a bombilla (metal contraption serving simultaneously as a straw and sieve), the yerba and a thermos of hot water. This tickles me, as it means that anyone who is willing to carry all this shite with them, really doeswant to drink mate. It is not an activity light on the luggage side of things. A preppy little take away latte it certainly is not.
- Its popularity has written itself all over the country in the form of a constant hot water service. The fact that hot water is frequently added to the gourd has resulted in and petrol stations and other facilities featuring huge hot water dispensers which allow truck drivers etc to fill their thermoses for a small price.
- It is unwaveringly social. In groups, one person tends to be responsible for replenishing the hot water, and passing the mate to the next person in line to drink. When finished, the drinker passes it back and the process continues. Conversation never stops, of course! You might even see a stranger on a bus offer a sip o’ mate to the person sitting next to them.
- It is an acquired taste. When first introduced to mate (in Spain, of all places, by a German, of all nationalities!) I thought it was a bitter cup of hell. Now, while I still find the first few sips of freshly poured yerba a little on the bitter side, the hell factor has well and truly disappeared. As an Australian who often forces Vegemite onto unsuspecting travelers, I know how nice it is when foreigners finally embrace something that you consider so normal a part of your life at home.