Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Study in Mate

Three months before we left on this trip through South America, I swore off coffee and for the most part, I've made good on this effort. Sticking mostly to tea, I've gotten my caffeine fix in other ways.

Now, in Bariloche, Argentina, I discovered and have been awaiting to try a new, interesting take on drinking tea: maté. After receiving a cultural lesson from Bernardo, the inn keeper at La Barracca hostel, I codified my desire to try this method and made my way out to buy my first maté cup, bombilla (straw), and yerba (the herbs used for the tea).

With these items, I was ready for my first maté experience. I began with the "curing" process: a two day event that allows my wooden cup to absorb the flavors of the yerba. To do so, yerba is poured into the new cup and hot water is added. This similar to any other preparation of maté, except that this will be left out over night, and not had. The next day, the process is repeated with a new batch of yerba. After the two days, the maté cup is ready for use.

As I waited for my maté to cure, I thought about the new culture of people I have been introduced to in Argentina. So far, this has been a country of long sighs and long breaks; a slow easy going place. Most shops shut down, at least here in Bariloche , for two to three hours every afternoon for siesta; waiters and waitresses let you be as you type away on your laptop, with empty glasses, as long as you want- hours at a table never to be approached. All very different from the on-the-run feeling we've grown accustomed to in the United States, where servers nearly escort you out the door as soon as the last morsel is lifted from your plate, and coffee and tea are more likely to be found in paper to-go cups rather than mugs on a table surrounded by friends. Here moments are drawn out, not crammed in before deadlines.

Drinking their tea is an event; a ritual that takes great care and time. First, a new cup needs to be cured, a two day process. No rush. Take your time. It will taste better if you wait. Then, each time a maté is taken, it is almost another event. While you sit with friends, sharing stories, or you sit by yourself and a book or a movie, you carry with you your water, constantly refreshing the tea with hot water. Savor as much as you want. It has so much flavor. Have more hot water. There's a whole Thermos. No rush.

The drink itself is an experience: a fancy cup, usually only for drinking maté, a fancy, metal straw or bombilla, and a wide selection of yerba to choose from. All three are personal to the owner; "This is my maté," as said by Bernardo regarding his maté. "You take care of your maté." As friends sit around drinking their maté, you feel as if you are in a smokey bar with gentlemen smoking their favorite choice cigars or filling their timeless pipes, or perhaps an American barbecue with everyone with their personal beer mugs.

And so I wait. No rush.


Two days had past and anticipation was high. Even though South American culture is slower than in the States, I still found myself not able to adapt: constantly not wanting to wait. In the time, my girlfriend was even able to get a coffee to-go from a local gas station early on Sunday morning, when the entirety of Bariloche, except us, the gas attendant, and the strays were still asleep. But I waited.

And with my first taste, I was honestly a bit taken back. The bitter taste, not complimented by the grapefruit flavors of the yerba, was strong. The small grainy particles, seemed to permeate the straw, landing square on my tongue leaving me feeling like a just had a mouthful of fine sand. Then, I found myself rushing to drink. One sip. One sip. Refill. One sip. One sip. Refill. Too bitter. So strong.

So I stepped back, and enjoyed. Took my time between sips and tastes, held the maté longer than I spent drinking it. Relaxed. Then, finally...I got it.

Take care of what mate and bombilla you select. It speaks to your character and is your grail.


  1. Hello. It is really hard to neglect coffee. Before I came to the States, I was not addicted to it but now I have a hard time not having one cup in the morning. AT least I have only a cup a day. I tried also tea before but I cannot take the taste. I am glad you finally enjoy or maybe use to what you are drinking now in replacement of coffee. Keep it up!

  2. I agree... Coffee is hard to give up especially since it tastes and smells so amazing.