Argentines and Uruguayans go everywhere with a shoulder bag that protrudes a Thermos. We see one, then two, then ten, and then, during a meeting between friends, we see ourselves handing a kind of shaman’s gourd accompanied by a « tomas mate? » (which means “do you drink mate?”). No reference with your “mate” friend but a Spanish word that you should pronounce “matey”. The thermos actually contains hot water in which we brew the precious mixture of dried leaves (Yerba mate, or “matey” ) and which we then aspire with a metal straw; before recharging it with water and passing it to you direct neighbor. So yes, then you would have, « tomado maté ». This ritual is much more than a moment of relaxation or a tea time with friends! Taking a look at the culture of the Mate in South America is essential to understand how these countries work. When we talk about the “Mate culture”, we mean as well the arboricultural culture, which is a major contributor to the export economy and the promotion of regional products from the south American area, as the traditional culture, a know-how, social behaviors and a South American way of life.
So, let’s have a look at this thousand-year-old drink that seduced both the revolutionary Che Guevara and the Pope, or even Madonna and Maradona!
What is it about? Mixed leaves called “yerba mate” (pronounced “chiérba maté” in the Buenos Aires manner), water, a round container, a straw serving as a filter and you’re good.
But what more? Yerba mate, or « mate grass », is in fact the result of the leaves of a specific tree (Ilex Paraguariensis for its small scientific name), crushed, dried for two years, and mixed with their stems, of which we will extract taste and flavor by adding hot water. It is, so far, like tea. However the leaves do not come from plants, but from wild trees of the tropical jungle. Those can reach up to 20 meters high, but in cultivation, it is pruned to reach a maximum of 4 to 8 meters.
Mate is also known by the less popular names of tea from the Jesuits, tea from Saint-Barthélemy or tea from Paraguay.
Serve. With these reduced leaves, we fill a small container in the shape of a calabash, also called mate. We try to reach roughly the edge, forming a “montañita” (little mountain) on one side, so as to leave a hollow where we run hot water (approx. 75° – 85°C). We will then plunge a metal straw into the calabash, placing its end (made with a filter) in contact with the herbs. We then pour water into these, but be careful not to submerge all the herbs at once! Do not fill the container, but rather soak the herbs with one to three sips of water; and we suck up!
At first it may seem bitter, but its taste, if it is more pronounced, is not diametrically opposed to that of a well flavoured black tea. We can add other herbs or citrus fruits to modulate its flavours, but this is not what is usually done.
The Paraguayan variant, land of the Guarani people who perfected the drink more than a thousand years ago, is drunk with cold water. It is then called « Tereré ».
Mate is not only weeds! It is also the eponymous container in which it is drunk. No Yerba Mate in a glass, a mug, a cup, a bowl, a saucepan… the drink is absolutely dependent on the way it is consumed.
This is also why « mate » applies to both mixed herbs and the calabash in which they are poured.
This container comes originally from the very fruit of the Lagenaria tree which gives the leaves of Mate. No need to look for complications, right? This cucurbit fruit must have its upper half removed, and the one above is hollowed out and dried in order to use the bottom of the fruit as an operatic object, ready to receive hot water and weeds.
For some academics, “Mate” comes from Guarani while others claim that it comes from Quechua “mati”, that was used to only qualify the container once treated to receive the infusion.
Today, and even including the most extravagant containers, gourds still scrupulously respect this original “porongo” form. They are no longer made from the fruit, but from wood or leather, and… that’s it. There are also some in gold and silver, but they serve exclusively as pageantry.
As for the straw (the « bombilla »), it is made of metal and as long as it is rigorously equipped with a filter at its base, you will find all kind of shapes.
Remedy from grandmothers, but not only. The drink intrigued from the start: it gave so much vigor and robustness to its consumers that the locals thought it was offered by the gods. In the era of scientific analyzes, its composition was the subject of decodings as many as the virtues attributed to Mate were numerous. We now conclude that it consists of nearly 250 nutrients, of which only 196 are identified; that Mate is stimulating, but does not present any trace of addictive products, and that it is less strong in caffeine than tea, coffee, or cocoa! It is also rich in antioxidants and is said to lower cholesterol levels. Not a drug then, and even a good alternative to coffee, or even to cigarettes or sugar snacks.
Mate is the national drink of three Latin American countries: Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay; in addition to being widely consumed in Brazil, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Approximately 75-80% of men and between 79-82% of women in Montevideo (Uruguayan capital) drink mate every day according to current Latin American observatories. These show similar figures for Argentina where it is consumed on average nearly 100 liters of mate per year and per person.
According to datas recently published by the National Institute of Yerba Mate (INYM), between January and September 2020, 202.8 million kilos were consumed in Argentina! And indeed: Driving the children to school? An Argentinian or Uruguayan will bring his Mate. Walking the dog at the park? You should bring your Mate. Traveling more than 2 hours by bus, car or horseback? Mate. Madam the Deputy X is going to Congress? Mate. Mr. Z is visiting his friend? Mate. Preparing for a revolution or a robbery? Mate.
The internet page of the Argentine Ministry of Culture even dedicates a page to it and just for it. November 30 is the national day dedicated to Mate. This date is actually intended to commemorate the birth of Andrés Guacari y Artigas, a mayor of Guarani origin who was one of the first federal leaders of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata region, as well as the only directly indigenous governor that Argentinian history still counts!
THE UNITED – STATES OF MATE
“Frente al mate somos todos iguales”“We are all equal before Mate,” author Valeria Trapaga in an online conference.
The way to consume your mate is the opposite of espresso. Instead of a very small cup containing a tiny bit of liquid that we drink all at once, very hot, and … alone, the Mate is divided between several guests, and it needs to be recharged until the one or two liters of hot water stored in the Thermos are used up. It promotes moments of relaxation, sharing, communication.
As its history shows, drinking Mate is not synonymous with belonging to any race, social class or rank, no! Mate is shared among all and no one is less worthy. The colonists quickly got used to sharing it directly with the Indians who were the only ones to possess the secret at first. The white man therefore quickly sat down alongside the native to share his drink, and thus some of his customs. Later (and still today) the employees shared it with the bosses, the young with the elders…
And above all, everyone drinks in the same mate and with the same straw! When for coffee everyone would use a different cup, in the case of Mate, it is the same container that is shared by the whole group and that is refilled with water before each suction. The same straw is also used.
In a period of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Argentine government had to carry out a communication campaign by appealing to Argentine common sense and asking « to make an exception and not to share the Mate in these times of health disruption, por favor! »
The one who serves (who ceba – from the verb « cebar », a specific term which means « to serve the Mate »), will take the first sorbo (the first aspiration, or first « sip »). He will then add hot water and pass to his neighbor who will hand it again after having drunk in turn. The one in charge of the service will continue to serve and so on, and always to the right. So everyone will drink the same thing and by the same means: this is a sign of trust and putting oneself at the level of the other—a pledge of mutual respect.
In fact, the North American Indian custom of smoking the pipe in a meeting is exactly the same; and it is relevant to think that it is also relevant in symbolism. Sharing the Mate is initiating contact, exchanging, communicating and this can even be done between two enemies who would seek in this way to find a point of agreement.
To be invited to share a Mate is to enter a circle of conviviality and friendship.
After a few turns, turning the mate over by saying « thank you » means that we will not take more. Finally, after having consumed it as desired, we can throw the mixture of leaves at the foot of plants or in the planter of the old woman next door: it is a highly effective compost. Obviously all of this is a little less codified among today’s young population, although still generally respected.
All equal… up to the toilet. Something (not so) trivial for example, the toilets, whether public or private, are, in countries consuming mate, made more accessible. Each long bus journey includes a pee stop, for example. This not because after all the needs of women are taken seriously, but because drinking a lot of mate, men need to urinate more frequently. Therefore: “mi problema es tu problema”, the female need to access toilets often becomes a unisex need and is solved.
Humility and mutual aid. It is also common to run out of hot water or to run out of Yerba (the mixed weeds), then you should not hesitate to appeal to the benevolence of the unknown fellow you see nearby serving his own Mate; there is little risk that the latter would refuse to help you out. Just as the respective conversations of two groups of Mate drinkers quickly becomes a single discussion shared by one and the same group; in south America, taking out Mate in public is a gesture of openness to others (and even an invitation to interactions). Big cities are obviously the breeding ground for more selfish and introverted behavior, but as a rule, Mate is always synonymous with friendliness and peace of mind.
The (dead) languageof Mate. Chilean historian Daniel Balmaceda writes “to offer Mate with a slice of orange, for example, was a way of telling the guest that he was truly welcome at home. Mate with a lemon wedge indicated distance, even enmity. The cold Mate was a way of letting the person know it was time to go home, and when the Mate was overcast it was a sign never to come back. »
Continue to the history of Mate? (2 min read) ⤵
FROM INDIGENOUS BEVERAGE TO THE GREEN GOLD OF THE SETTLERS
Between Jesuit hypocrisy and a feeling of national unity.
The history of yerba mate begins with the Kaingang people (3000 BC), who were the first consumers of mate. The first producers were the Guaranis, 1000 before our era. Their territory covers Paraguay, northern Argentina and southern Brazil and is largely made up of jungle. The leaves were already consumed as a drink, but were also used for medicinal purposes or were used as offerings during ritual ceremonies. Perceived as a divine gift, the preparation was not left to chance. Mate had the reputation of « chasing fatigue », of giving endurance or even of « promoting good humor ». Later the Spaniards actually noted the astonishing robustness of the natives of the south of America and in particular, of the Guarani Nation.
Archaeological excavations at the Santa Fé site (Argentina) show that the Guaranis already used porongo calabashes, then called “bernegales”. However it would seem that they did not use straw, but their upper lips and their teeth in order to drink only the water and not the leaves.
Europe discovered mate in the 16th century, through travelogues.
When the religious arrived in the Argentine province of Rio de la Plata, they were scandalized by the behavior of the Spanish colonists who were obviously already well integrated, having several wives, drinking a lot of alcohol and, moreover, « drinking this kind of venom which they share with the Indians” informs Pau Navajas, based on the statements of a priest. Navajas adds that the drink seemed so scandalous in the eyes of the religious, that they threatened to excommunicate people for “Mate consumption”.
In 1592, Governor Hernandarias wrote a letter to the King of Spain, in which he mentioned the problems generated by Mate, such as, among others, wasting working time since it had to infuse, was shared in groups and led too easily to discussion.
However, the scandal over and the currency running out, the Jesuit missionaries settled in the region of the Guaranis (mostly in Paraguay) and organized this people in missions along the Rio Parana Alto river to work under their orders. By exploiting the natives, the Jesuits created the first agro-industry in the region by promoting the cultivation of mate. This work also consisted in the construction of roads transporting this new “green gold” to neighboring countries (and to Spain).
The Jesuits now abounded in the sense of the Guarani version arguing that yerba mate was a divine gift, but not intended for savages, no, but rather for good Christian believers…
The main market extended from the Argentine province Rio de la Plata to Peru, but also in Chile and Paraguay, countries from the 16th century became the center of production.
In the 17th century, the yerba Mate became the third export product related as currency for the region. While precious metals were lacking, the mixture became a real local currency : “ the yerba moneda ”! (the weed money) [tu peux toujours laisser la traduction pour ceux qui ont un doute]
The city of Santa Fé, which is today at the crossroads between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, developed its sense of commerce by exploiting the vein. Consecration came on December 31, 1662, when its port was consecrated by the King of Virreinato, the official place of departure for Yerba Mate exports to the whole world.
After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 from all Latin America, the Brazilians captured most of the plantations located in the south-east of the continent. They became adepts of Mate and further developed the trade initiated by the Jesuits… until they became the first producers of Yerba Mate in the world… and exhausted the natural and wild sources of Mate trees.
In the 18th century, it had already been customary to consume in Santiago de Chile for about two centuries. Eugenio Pereira Salas claims that its use was so widespread that in 1779 when the king ordered the lifting of a tax on Mate (yes, there was a lot of money to be made here!), Chileans from the most urbanized parts organized protests and went to contract with a lawyer in order to counter this annoying idea. While waiting for the king to reconsider his decision, in 1790, there were a few years of Mate smuggling!
“In a society as stratified as the colony, the consumption of Mate was found in all of society: from the governor to the peasant, the black slave, women, children… all drank Mate and shared it », describes Pau Navajas.
In 1935, the Argentine state set up the Commission for the Production and Trade of Yerba Mate to regulate the entire process of production and sale. Dissolved in 1991, production was liberalized. Then, in 2002, the Instituto Nacional de la Yerba Mate (INYM) was set up, whose role is to technically and financially assist the development of the market that Argentina knows to be a windfall for its economy.
Today, young South Americans rather invite each other to share a Mate than to drink a coffee. To use it without offering it to its neighbor even if it is a complete stranger is perceived as a lack of education, and during the assemblies or meetings of leaders, it is absolutely normal to see a president serenely sipping his Mate in the first row.
Mate, international ambassador. The highly recognizable object often leaves little doubt as to the nationality of its owner. In European streets, seeing someone with his mate is therefore an emblem, if not national, of belonging to South America. From this can emerge an immediate complicity and conviviality between two South Americans abroad, who will not hesitate to get to know each other from the simple sight of a straw or a calabash!
Surprisingly, Mate has its Wikipedia page in Asturianu language (Iberian language) and Arabic. The case of the Arab is explained by the Argentinian-Syrian interactions. According to the head of the Argentino-Arab Chamber of Commerce, Pablo Fodaro, the introduction of Mate (drink and container) in Syria would have taken place in the short period from 1850 to 1860, during the great immigration from this country of navigators to Argentina. Then, during the 20th century, when the Argentine economy suffered its first setback, Syrian families returned to their countries of origin, taking their luggage in the famous calabash and some Yerba Mate. In 2009, for example, Syria was the largest importer of Yerba Mate outside the Americas. In addition, when the Alawite minority took power in 1970 it exposed the habits of the upper social class, including that of sharing Mate.
Conclusion. Just as the English tea time is not only a civilized tradition of old bourgeois women fond of scones, but also the illustration of imperial colonization, international trade, soft-power of culture, globalized consumption, ambiguous relationship of domination, flow of migration, and finally, from a state of mind… Mate is not just a slightly bitter drink.
Through its history, Mate tells the unknown story of the slavery of the natives of the south of the continent by Europeans. It is similar to the disparaged story of the cotton fields in the southern United States, which the whites maintained thanks to the labor resulting from the slave trade.
Mate also illustrates “Latinity” abroad, as well as the persistence of traditions in the modern world, the added value of the South in world trade and, above all, it symbolizes a very specific and identifiable culture of openness and sharing.
Finally, and I am sad to end on a negative note, but it is impossible to hide the fact that the intensive cultivation of Yerba Mate is damaging the rainforest. Nevertheless, projects promoting a sustainable culture that is less harmful to the environment are underway!
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- Amaro Villanueva, « El mate. Arte de cebar », 1960.
- Pau Navajas, « Caá Porã. El Espíritu de la yerba mate» ,2013.