Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sucking down on my first mate

I needed to prepare. The family I was off to visit were materos, and I, an Englishman whose hot beverage customs were limited to a cup of tea, was not initiated in the social ritual of mate. It was my second visit to Argentina however, and I wanted to try.

Mate, pronounced mar-tay, is a hot, bitter beverage drunk extensively throughout Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. It is traditionally a social drink, shared with family or friends, both in the home and in the streets (especially in Uruguay).

It is prepared by taking a recipient (traditionally made from a gourd and also called a mate), and filling it three quarters full with yerba, dry leaves and twigs from the yerba mate plant.

The preparation is important and nearly everyone has their own special tips. Generally, the preparer covers the mate with his palm, turns it upside down and shakes it to force any powdery bits to the top. He then tilts the mate sideways at an angle, and gently pours on a little tepid water.

Hot but never boiling water (80°C is perfect) is then added. The yerba expands and rises slightly. Next, the bombilla is inserted. The bombilla is a metal straw through which the liquid is sucked. The end inserted in the yerba has tiny holes and acts as a sieve to let the liquid through without the herby leaves.

Then the ritual begins. El cebador (the server), drinks the first round to ensure the bombilla is free of any powdery bits, and then refills it and passes it clockwise. Each person makes a loud slurping noise when they have sucked the gourd dry, and it goes back to el cebador and then onto the next drinker.

It may sound unhygienic, five or six people sharing the straw, but I wanted to participate when I went to see the family. A few days before the visit, my yerba training began.

My Argentine friend prepared mate and I sucked on the bombilla for the first time. It was bitter and unbearable, and the hot liquid burnt my tongue. I’d read nobody likes mate the first time. It’s an acquired taste and perseverance is a must if you wish to enjoy it one day. My friend added sugar to ease the bitterness and I persisted.

Over the next few days I learnt to tolerate it, and felt ready to visit the family.

I sat down with them around their table as Marina, the head of the household, heated the water. Though nowadays electronic kettles with a mate setting heat the water to a perfect 80°C, Marina used a stovetop kettle and knew instinctively from the sound when the desired temperature was reached.

She drank the first round and then handed the refilled gourd to me. I could feel everyone’s stares as I held the mate in my hands. I leant forward, put the bombilla in my mouth and sucked. I only grimaced slightly but everyone laughed. I wasn’t keen on sucking until the slurping noise but was encouraged to do so. I passed it back to Marina, remembering not to say thanks. I'd been told the the custom was to only say thanks when you didn’t want to drink another round. I drank three or four more that day.

Now, over two years later, I too am a matero. It is a relaxing ritual and the drink’s stimulant affect always helps on those long afternoons. It was well worth the perseverance.

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