The Mate

"We sat down around the fire and the mate started paying his visits."
Ricardo Güiraldes, Don Segundo Sombra, 1926

The mate is content and container at the same time: the mate is the yerba, the mate es the pumpkin (or mug, pot, glass and other portable wells). For the Argentinian is like an extension of their arms. I am convinced that in moments of mate necessity, the ordinary Argantinian can shake his arm and a mate will blossom on the other side, warm.

According to the first mate drinkers, the Guaraní (Ka’ay they called the mate: Ka'a=yerba, y=water), the yerba (the herb) was a present from Tupá God, who transformed himself in a hungry stranger and went to visit a poor old man in the Guaraní jungle. This man shares with him the few he has, and as a reward Tupá, Lord of the Yerba, gives him the yerba mate. The Guaranís used to have the Ka'a leafs infusion in a poro or clay pot, straining it through their teeth and spitting out the little leafs which remained in the mouth, or they also used to absord the infusion cold through straws. They used to chew the yerba during long walks as well, custom that has disappeared now.

Although one imagines the yerba mate like a herb, I mean, some king of grass rather humble, actually it comes from a tree, about 8 to 10 metres high, which needs a subtropical temperature, fertile soil, humidity and burning sun (a bit fussy and demanding, the particualr tree). But they only use the leafs for the yerba of course.

 

Preparation

The mate preparation is a rather strict ritual where any deviation is considered sacrilege. Usually you fill half or 3/4 of the mate (container) with yerba. In order not to block the bombilla (especial straw), you wet your hand and cover the mate with it, shake it so the finest grains stick to the hand (I have seen this done only a few times, if not never, it must be for purists or for the most demanding theorists). Afterwards you put the bombilla and move the yerba so the sirface remains diagonal, with the bigger amount at the bombilla's side. Then your pour the hot water (not boiling because it burns the yerba, but between 70° to 80°C) on the opposite side, the lower one, with leaving the higher surface dry, and you allow the yerba to swell until its foamy. This proccess is known as cebar the mate, that is to feed it with water. It is always done by the same person per round, the cebador, who passes the mate on until someone says gracias, password meaning you want no more. Never move the bombilla: "who stirs the mate blocks the bombilla." Popular saying. 

 

Mate Vocabulary

- Bostear: remove a bit of yerba when the mate runs short.
- Guarapo: mate too sweet.
- Mate cimarrón: bitter mate.
- Mate cocido, yerbao, mate gringo (cooked mate, yerba, gringo mate): when it's prepared like tea.
- Mate de hospital (hospital mate): cooled down mate.
- Mate estrella (star mate): way of serving the mate in which the cebador sits down in the middle of a circle of people and serves each one from the centre.
- Mate lloroso (crying mate): when it overflows.
- Mate misqui: with dulce de leche.
- Mate que pela: too hot.
- Tereré: prepared with cold water.

 

Container's Curing

"Fragrant as cured mate, the night..."
Borges, Fervour of Buenos Aires, Caminata, 1923.


To cure the pumpkin, the most common container, you fill it completely with bitter used cebadura (yerba after used), then pour hot water in and let it rest for a day. Afterwards remove the cebadura and scrape the interior with a spoon to get rid of the soft material. This operation is repeated until it is completely clean.