Monday, April 10, 2006

Food & Drink: The Mate in Argentina

Yerba mate is the national drink of Argentina. It is also popular in Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. According to the classical Argentine way, the act of drinking yerba mate is a highly stylized, ritualistic process.

Centuries ago, Jesuits tried to ban the mate brew for they considered it addictive. But after they realized that natives would actually work more and better –mate acted as a stimulator and body energizer- they abandoned the idea. In fact, they decided to start its massive cultivation as opposed to picking up the yerba mate leaves in the wild. They studied the plant in-depth and it soon became a major crop in all of the 30 villages they were controlling.

After Jesuits were expelled from the colonies and replaced by the religious order of Fransiscans the the mate crops were somewhat abandoned but the demand never stopped. Much later, in 1876, it was the state of Corrientes who issued reglamentation to regulate its production... and a whole industry was born. The infusion is not only drunk through a gourd, sometimes it is brewed just as a tea, and it is known as 'mate cocido'. It has become such a social symbol that not accepting a sip, provided you are in a typical 'mate setting', may be viewed strangely.

In essence, the mate in Argentina is a tea brewed from a plant grown in the northeast called yerba. This bitter green tea is obtained by adding hot water to leaves held in a seasoned gourd (the 'mate' container). It is said to be an aid in mental alertness and to have general healing properties. Most commonly, it is known as a coffee alternative. The gourd (mate) containing the brew is passed to each participant in a circle, who drains it through a metal straw (bombilla), before refilling it with hot water for the next participant. The mate will do several circuits before it is deemed washed out (lavado). Then, someone usually adds more leaves and starts a new round of mate (the drink). The main point is its social role. Passing the mate around is a decorous ritual, a convivial part of life, not only in the countryside, but anywhere in the city. Even in airplanes throughout a trip!! It is about intimacy and friendship.

An important point is the the mate infusion must be prepared using a cured mate. The curing process adapts the mate to the kind of infusion for which is going to be used. Mates are divided in two categories: curable and incurable. Incurable mates are those made of non-porous materials (glass, metal, china, etc.). They should not be used because they lose all "memory" of the taste when they are washed, and, therefore, are unable to impart that aged taste that only a cured mate can do.The curing process is divided in two steps: before the first use (or proper curing) and the curing that results from the everyday use of the gourd with only one kind of infusion (for example pure mate with no additives).The proper curing has two purposes: the removal of soft tissues and the adaptation of the gourd to the particular kind of infusion.For the removal of soft tissues, fill the gourd with used yerba mate add hot water and let stand for a day. It is better to use pure yerba mate and not yerba mate that was used with sugar because the latter decomposes easily.Next day, remove the yerba, rinse the gourd and scrap the soft tissues. Repeat the whole process one more time. For the adaptation to "black" mate or cimarrón (that is pure yerba mate with no additives like sugar), fill the gourd with fresh yerba mate and add boiling water.Let stand for a day. Repeat for two or three days if you feel like it. For "sweet" mate, first add two or three teaspoons of sugar and a small piece of burning coal. Cover the gourd mouth and shake vigorously to burn the sugar homogeneously. Empty the gourd and proceed as for the cimarrón mate.

Yerba mate is supposed to have powers such as mental stimulation, fatigue reduction, stress reduction, insomnia elimination, appetite control, body immunization, blood detoxification, nervous system toning, restoration of hair color and preservation of youth. One group of investigators from the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society concluded that mate' contains practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life. They focused especially on pantothenic acid, remarking that it is rare to find a plant with so much of this significant and vital nutrient. It is indeed difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to mate' in nutritional value. photo