Nothing expresses the soul of southern South America better than its liquid pick-me-up, an herbal infusion called mate (maté). All over Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Chile, men and women engage in animated conversation while holding a rotund cup and a thermos bottle of hot water. They talk, sip, gesticulate, talk, and sip some more.
Mate is a tea made from the dried and crushed leaves of an indigenous holly plant. The ubiquitous brew can actually be a bit hard for a norte americano to understand. Unlike coffee, drinking mate is often a shared experience, with two, three, or more people sharing a single cup. On a recent trip to South America, we also observed many men sitting alone and drinking mate along sun-drenched seafront quays from Ushuaia to Montevideo.
Whether consumed solo or with other people, mate is nearly always prepared by the consumers. That means you can't just nip into the nearest teashop or Starbucks to order a takeaway mate. But with some basic knowledge and equipment, you can easily make the stuff yourself.
You need four things: the drinking vessel, which is a hollowed-out gourd called a guampa, a silver metal straw called a bombilla, an insulated flask, and the herb mixture. The materials and herb are sold inexpensively in stores and from street vendors, and they make useful souvenirs.
There is plenty of ritual involved in preparing and drinking mate correctly. (Preparing English tea is a dawdle by comparison.) After trying and failing to figure out how to make mate on our own, we made friends with Sebastian, a Patagonian mountain guide, who gave us a lesson on how to brew it properly.
Fill the guampa two-thirds full with the dry mate herb.
With the palm of your hand covering the top, tilt the gourd and swirl the mate. Then return the guampa to upright. If you've done it correctly, the mate lies at a roughly 45 degree angle to the base, with the powdery bits at the top.
Insert the bombilla in the empty side of the guampa, and pour hot water over the bombilla. Let the mixture steep for a bit. The first cupful will be very strong. Experienced mate drinkers use the same hillside of moist herbs all day, topping up with more hot water on the empty, bombilla side as needed.
Sip and savor. The initial taste experience might best be compared to learning to drink scotch whiskey or cellar-temperature English beer. Frankly, it takes some getting used to. The flavor made us two mate newbies think of steeped fresh alfalfa with notes of farmyard and dry straw. After a while, the experience (we are told) becomes pleasant.