Despite reading a lot about the custom of Mate before arriving in Argentina, I was surprised to see just how ingrained into local culture it was. Mate (pronounced Mah-Tay) is a hot drink, made with Yerba Mate leaves and hot water. The green herb mixture, which actually looks a lot like something you’d season your dinner with, smells strongly of old tabacco and feels dusty and dry to the touch.
Not convinced? Neither was I.
The locals however, bloody love the stuff. It is consumed morning, noon and night, transcending generations; it’s not unusual to see families and their friends all enjoying Mate together outside their houses or in the local park. They carry around large, brightly coloured flasks containing hot water, and small, rounded cups usually made of wood or metal with delicate metal drinking straws called bombillas. The bombillas are part of the ritual; each person takes their turn to drink, from the same bombilla, following the initial sips taken by the owner of the flask. Each time the drink is re-filled and passed on, the owner turns the bombilla to face the next person in line as a sign of friendship. The bombillas have bulbous ends, with tiny holes, through which the liquid is slurped up – leaving the leaves and residue at the bottom of the cup.
To create the Mate, the cups are half filled with Yerba Mate herbs and a small amount of hot water is added to cover the herbs. Each person in the group takes turns to drink their portion, amounting to three or four generous gulps each. The water is topped up each time, until the strength and flavour is considered too weak and the whole process starts again.
When the opportunity arose to participate in this intriguing custom, we got stuck right in! I was excited to be taking part in such a unique local ritual, but I wasn’t expecting to like it. Norma, our host, prepared the drink after our meal and took the first few sips. When Norma eventually passed the drink to me, I approached it with caution. Expecting the liquid to be hot as well as overbearing I sipped the tiniest of sips. Kapow! That stuff packed a punch. An intense, smokey flavour, like wood chips from a summer BBQ; the strength of it caught in the back of my throat. We had both been on an (unintentional) caffeine detox, so the potency of the Mate went straight to our heads. I liked it. It was herby and rich, and I could see how the Argentinians were so addicted to it. It’s full of caffeine so naturally Adam was totally into it – he even went back for seconds!
Not sure we’ll be swapping our flat whites for a flask of Mate any time soon, but it was an enjoyable experience nevertheless. Saying that, finding good coffee in Argentina has been a challenge to say the least, but that’s another post entirely…