The herby leaves used in making mate, Argentina’s national beverage, come from an evergreen tree, Ilex paraguayensis, a member of the holly family that grows in northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil and Paraguay. Its leaves and buds are harvested with machetes in the dry southern winter (June–Aug) and used to make the yerba or mate herb. The preparation process for good yerba is complex and subtle: first comes the zapecado, literally “opening of the eyes”, when the mate leaves are dry-roasted over a fire, to prevent fermentation and keep the leaves green. They are then coarsely ground, bagged and left to mature in dry sheds for nine months to a year, though this is sometimes artificially accelerated to two months or even less. A milling process then results in either coarse caá-guazú “big herb”, or the more refined caá-mini.
The vessel you drink it out of is also called a mate, or matecito, originally a hollowed-out gourd of the climbing species Lagenaria vulgaris, native to the same region. It’s dried, hollowed out and “cured” by macerating yerba mate inside it overnight. These gourds are still used today and come in two basic shapes: the pear-shaped poro, traditionally used for mate sweetened with sugar, and the squat, satsuma-shaped galleta, meant for cimarrón, literally “untamed”, or unsweetened mate. Many mates are works of art, intricately carved or painted, and often made of wood, clay or metal – though connoisseurs claim gourds impart extra flavour to the brew. The bombilla – originally a reed or stick of bamboo – is the other vital piece of equipment. Most are now straw-shaped tubes of silver, aluminium or tin, flattened at the end on which you suck, and with a spoon-shaped protuberance at the other; this is perforated to strain the mate as you drink it. Optional extras include the pava hornillo, a special kettle that keeps the water at the right temperature. A thermos-flask is the modern-day substitute for this kettle, and can be replenished at shops and cafés; “hot water available” signs are a common sight all over Argentina but especially in the Litoral.
Mateine is a gentler stimulant than the closely related caffeine, helping to release muscular energy, pace the heartbeat and aid respiration without any of the side effects of coffee. In the 1830s it even met with the approval of a wary Charles Darwin, who wrote that it helped him sleep. It’s a tonic and a digestive agent, and by dulling the appetite can help you lose weight. Its laxative, diuretic and sweat-making properties also make it very effective at purging toxins, perfect after excessive asado binges.
The dos and don’ts of mate drinking
If you find yourself in a group drinking mate, it’s just as well to know how to avoid gaffes. The cebador – from cebar “to feed” – is the person who makes the mate. After half-filling the matecito with yerba, the cebador thrusts the bombilla into the yerba and trickles very hot – but not boiling – water down the side of the bombilla, to wet the yerba from below. The cebador always tries the mate first – the “fool’s mate” – before refilling and handing it round to each person present, in turn – always with the right hand and clockwise. Each drinker drains the mate through the bombilla, without jiggling it around, sipping gently but not lingering, or sucking too hard, before handing it back to the cebador. Sucking out of the corner of the mouth is also frowned upon. A little more yerba may be added from time to time but there comes a moment when the yerba loses most of its flavour and no longer produces a healthy froth. The matecito is then emptied and the process started afresh. Saying “gracias” means you’ve had enough, and the mate will be passed to someone else when your turn comes round.