To call the drinking of yerba mate a fixation in parts of South America would be an understatement. Yerba mate (MAH-tey) in Argentina and Uruguay is consumed regularly by an estimated 98 percent of the population, and, like tea in other countries, has social and cultural significance and rituals associated with friendship, business relationships, leisure, hospitality, etiquette and national identity.
As a social ritual, mate brewing requires a bit more than just yerba, the vessel (calabaza), straw (bombilla) and hot water (80 degrees C – 175 degrees F – is the usual temperature, but around 50 degrees C or 120 degrees F is preferred); if you are in a group setting, you’ll also need to know a bit of its language of respect and solidarity.
The person who brews the mate takes the first – too strong – sip, leaving the second, better-tasting sip for the next person. You only say “thank you” when you don’t want any more and return the mate to the brewer. In Uruguay, normally the host brews the mate, while in Argentina a guest could also. It’s considered offensive to skip someone –puentear (literally “bridging” him or her) – while passing the mate around. In Uruguay they say dormir el mate (“sleep the mate”) if someone Bogarts the mate and forgets to pass. A “washed” mate has gone cold or has lost its flavor.
While yerba mate has become deeply embedded in the culture here, the original use of the plant by the pre-Columbian Guaraní population was medicinal and for its energizing properties. They would chew the leaves of the plant, known as caá, or use them to brew an infusion, which they would sip through the teeth or a straw from a small clay vessel called a matí, which was hung around the neck. The caá-mate of the Guaraní was not as sacred to them as coca was to the Incas, but it was important enough that some Guaraní would make the dangerous trek from deep in the jungle back to the village carrying huge and extremely heavy quantities of the leaves on their backs.
Through their travels, the Spaniards discovered the use of this plant in the 16th century, and in the 17th, the Jesuits started cultivating it, developing a tea made from the chopped leaves. But, after their expulsion in the 18th century, the secrets of cultivation left with them, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that European scientists found new ways to grow the plants from seed. In colonial times, cultivation increased, and the bitter infusion of yerba mate was often sweetened with a little sugar served with silver spoons. It became a popular drink and turned into the social ritual that it is today, connecting people across time and across cultures to the red earth of this land.
The yerba mate tree, Ilex paraguariensis, grows in very special conditions. In Misiones, the northern Argentinian region bordering Brazil and Paraguay, the soil, composed mainly of basalt and rich with soft clay and iron and aluminum oxides, is an intense red that leaves its mark on your shoes, socks and pants forever. The area is surrounded by five rivers, including the Paraná, Uruguay and Iguassu (known for their impressive waterfalls), into which more than 800 tributaries deposit their waters. In this subtropical region, with its 290,000 hectares of deep jungle and where the average temperature is 20 degrees C (68 degrees F), yerba mate grows wild, and another 182,800 hectares are used for commercial yerba mate cultivation.
Growing yerba mate isn’t easy. And that’s why, together with the Guaraní legacy, the cultivation of yerba mate is concentrated completely in this area: around 60 percent in Misiones and Corrientes, the Argentinian north; around 35 percent in the Brazilian south; the remaining 5 percent in Paraguay; and a negligible amount in Uruguay. Much of it is consumed here and in Chile, as well as in Syria and Lebanon, whose countrymen have had a taste for yerba mate since the 19th century, when returning immigrants (mostly Druze) brought it back with them from Argentina after their migration in the mid-19th century. The mate ritual has become an important tradition there too, also as a social drink enjoyed by groups of friends and also for greeting guests at home. The one difference in the ritual here is that a smaller straw is used with individual glasses or clay containers, and just the hot water is shared. And during the current conflict in Syria, mate has been one of the few constants, providing those affected with moments to socialize. Syrian expats and refugees often carry it with them in their suitcases (yerba mate has recently shown up, for example, in Istanbul markets catering to resettled Syrians).
To better understand yerba mate production and culture we visited Posadas, one of the mate capitals in the province of Misiones, with Alejandro Gruber, president of Argentina’s Ruta de la Yerba Mate.
Gruber explained that in Misiones, the yerba is de monte (from the forest), cultivated under shade from vegetation, but in Corrientes, the yerba is mostly de campo (from the countryside), in contact with the sunlight, creating significant differences in color, texture and flavor. Traditional yerba normally is about 30 percent palo, tiny sticks from the plants that soften the drink – a practice that originated with the Spanish, whereas the Guaraní consumed only the leaves.
Today, the industrial production of yerba mate is one of the most important economic activities in Misiones, and most of it takes place on small farms (52 percent cultivate less than 5 hectares) and medium-sized farms (about 42 percent cultivate between 5 and 25 hectares), representing 64 percent of the total cultivation in the region. With around 17,000 primary producers and about a hundred processors, yerba mate is an important part of people’s lives here. It’s easy to spot small plots of yerba amidst the jungle as you travel across the region. Once the mate is harvested, the processors clean and dry the plants with indirect fire to dehydrate it – taking care never to burn the leaves – before they are stored away for a year.
On our trip to Posadas, we stopped at one of the town’s best-known pastry shops, Panificados Maná (Av. Republica Oriental del Uruguay 2677, N3301AYO). Just outside the door was a vending machine that dispensed hot water for one’s thermos of mate. Owner Miguel Krawczuk and his daughter, Carolina, greeted us with an amazing mate de campo and a selection of their treats. After the financial crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s many businesses developed ways to sell local products, and Panificados Maná was the first to make traditional specialties with the addition of yerba: chipá (a wonderful Guaraní bread made with cassava starch and egg, with cheese), the pastries medialunas and facturas and now also alfajores (delicate sandwich cookies with dulce de leche in the middle). Combining 1 kilo of yerba with every 10 kilos of dough adds an herbal note as well as the plant’s stimulating and antioxidant properties to the finished product.
Such use of yerba mate has grown more extensive in recent years, and it has shown up in the desserts of Argentinean chef Pedro Lambertini, the gin cocktails of bartender Renato Tato Giovannoni and in ice cream and gelato made at home or in shops. It’s a development that ensures that what was already a ubiquitous feature of life in parts of South America will only become more so.