Yerba mate

Categories: Product of the week

A stimulating South American hot drink, designed to be shared

Drunk from sun up to sun down with friends, family and colleagues, mate is to an Argentinian what a cuppa is to a British person: a life force, a source of energy, a reason to socialise and the medium for doing so. “It allows you to hang out and spend time with people,” explains Federico of Porteña, whose stall sells the yerba mate used to make this popular hot drink. “It’s a natural stimulant that makes you feel more alert—but it’s not like coffee or cola, where you have a lift and then crash. It’s powerful, but it’s not damaging.”

The yerba mate plant, which is native to large parts of South America, contains caffeine in a form that provides a sustained lift—but that is only one of the reasons for its popularity in Latin America and, increasingly, the Middle East. “Mate is not something you would just drink by yourself. It is a social thing,” says Federico. “It’s a way of bringing people together and prolonging the conversation.”

Take it in turns
Sharing is a vital part of the mate experience: it’s why the gourd cup in which it is served comes with a flask of hot (not boiling) water, so the mate can be topped up continuously. The gourd is traditionally passed around a group of drinkers who take it in turns to sip from it. “The Middle East is like Latin America, in that the weather is good and the resources are poorer, so there is more socialising. There is more of a ‘mañana, mañana’ attitude.”

In Jordan, in Lebanon, even in the shisha bars along Edgware Road, drinking mate has become part of the social ritual. “There was an Argentinian guy who went to Syria many years ago and started importing it, and it grew from there. It’s cheaper than coffee, so you can keep on drinking it without spending much.” Not everyone falls instantly in love with it, but “like a fine wine or beer, it’s an acquired taste”. Smoky, grassy, strong and complex, mate is divisive to European tastebuds: you could hate it, but you could get hooked on it.

Rich in rainfall
The majority of Argentinian yerba mate comes from the north-east of the country, from the Mesopotamia region, which is famously rich in rainfall and vegetation. In theory, yerba mate will grow wherever it is warm, humid and rainy, but, says Frederico, the market has come to be dominated by a handful of long-standing and skilled family farms.

Mate is quick to prepare. “The whole plant goes into mate: the leaves, the twigs, the branches—about 60 per cent of the gourd is filled with the plant,” says Federico, and with so much yerba mate foliage in there imparting its flavours, there’s no need for the long brewing time necessitated by tea leaves or ground coffee. Some drinkers add sugar; others add milk and orange peel; Paraguayans favour cooling the drink with ice. Seemingly, the one thing that all mate drinkers have in common is that they drink it together, chatting and sipping until the gourd is ‘lavado’—that is, spent.