Let´s have a mate

A visit to the Mate Museum in Tigre is an ideal first step towards a trip to Misiones y Corrientes.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
One of the first things that draws the attention of newly arrived tourists in Buenos Aires, is the large number of people they see sipping an infusion through a metal straw from a small container full of ground leaves and stems that are steeped with hot water from a thermos or kettle. Consumption of the infusion (popularly called mate) through a straw with a filter at the end (bombilla) sunken into the yerba mate (popularly called just yerba) inside a gourd or another type of container (also called a mate) is an old regional tradition shared by citizens of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.
But not even habitual mate consumers imagine the intricacies of the folk rituals that have developed around this practice over the past two centuries, grafted by immigrants from many different countries onto a mestizo rootstalk.
Both locals and foreigners interested in finding out about this tradition’s roots in Argentina, and enjoy a refreshing approach to the country’s history as well, would do well to drop by the new Museo del Mate (Mate Museum) in Tigre, which deals with the history and evolution of preparing, serving and sipping this popular infusion.

While nowadays the word “mate” is used to refer to both the infusion and the container in which it is steeped, the museum deals with the container and the folklore associated with it in Argentina, the world’s biggest yerba mate producer.
A visit to the Mate Museum is an ideal first step toward a trip to the Iberá wetlands in Corrientes, and then on to Misiones, the province which, in addition to being the best gateway to Iguazú Falls, is the country’s biggest grower and manufacturer of yerba mate.

Inaugurated on February 23, 2009 in an elegant 1930s house facing the Tigre River, the museum is the creation of Jorge Díaz, a former tourism director of Baradero, a Buenos Aires Province town on the Paraná River. The collection contains more than 2,000 pieces acquired over a period of 30 years by its creator Francisco Scutellá, of Paraná, Entre Ríos. Scutellá, who sold the collection to Díaz, is the author of five books that are among those on sale in the new museum’s gift shop.
The first exhibit of the guided tour (which can be conducted in English if you so request in advance of your visit) brings home the fact that gourds of different types provided some of man’s first eating and musical instruments. Then you see the first thermos bottle (patented in the United States in 1907), and examples of the mates with portraits of several politicians from Entre Ríos strongman Justo José de Urquiza (1801-1870) to Carlos Menem. Only the ones with portraits of former presidents Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) – made in white porcelain – and Menem – made from a gourd – were examples of political merchandising, as they were given to followers; the others were bought by admirers.

The variety of mates and yerberas (lidded containers with compartments for yerba and sugar) shows the extent to which mate sipping was one of the few habits that cut across social classes.
In addition to humble gourd or orange peel versions of the mate, there is a colonial silver number with a bell to call the servants, and sissy porcelain and glass models that were made to order in Europe for expatriates living in the River Plate area.
Several small gourd or carved wooden yerberas for the family table contrast with a huge wooden 150-year-old teamster’s version with separate compartments for mates, bombillas, yerba, and herbs and other items to vary the taste during long journeys in ox carts.
You come across painted tin yerba cans in which the product was sold in general stores, and the cardboard and glass containers that replaced them during the two world wars, when military activities absorbed all available metals.
The lady who represents the Argentine Republic sits at the base of a porcelain mate made in 1910 (in Germany) on occasion of the country’s Centennial. The Bicentennial Mate can be seen on the Internet.There are mates that reflect fashions, needs and a sense of humor. The “hygienic mate,” an invention of German immigrants who had a Mate Club on Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires, consisted of an individual double-filter mouthpiece that each member put on the bombilla when the mate made the rounds. The mate de los enamorados (for spooning couples) had a bifurcated bombilla that allowed the fiancés to sip simultaneously, cheek to cheek.
The mate de la suegra celosa (made to order for the jealous mother-in-law) was a small container with two handles that allowed the lady to hand it to the in-law without touching his or her hand.
One learns that small-mouth mates keep the dirt out of the infusion in windy areas, and wide-mouth ones are for places with little wind. Gourd mates are encased in leather to help them retain heat and avoid breakage.
Modern-day models may be encased in rhea, chicken or surubí (giant catfish) skin, or maybe even a bull scrotum.
More common still are the ghastly cloven cow-hoof mates so ubiquitous in souvenir shop windows in Argentina and Uruguay.
Mates are never washed, just rinsed. Curing a gourd for a mate is an intricate but very necessary process for which patience is necessary.
The museum’s collection of bombillas reveals that the straw may be made from bird bones, plastic and – in the case of the poor Argentine soldiers during the Malvinas war – an empty ballpoint pen case.
Visitors are also reminded that mate has been used in liqueurs, soft drinks and perfumes.
They are shown the National Yerba Institute’s video about yerba, its health benefits and how it is harvested and processed.
In normal times, free of the present “A” flu psychosis, a gaucho from San Antonio de Areco comes to show visitors how to steep the yerba in a mate in the museum’s matera (mate house) in the back garden. The 700 mates of all shapes and sizes hanging from the ceiling are the perfect setting for the following mateada (mate sipping session) around the fire.
For those who feel that sharing a bombilla is anti-hygienic, there is a disposable plastic mate and bombilla that Establecimiento Las Marías sells in a sealed bag together a telgopor thermos and a package of its Taragüi-brand yerba. The Syrians, who have been importing a lot of yerba since the mid-19th century, have taken a similar decision; in their country everybody takes his or her own mate, bombilla and bag of yerba to parties, sharing the hot water at most.
A museum’s gift shop sells skin-encased mates, cimarroneras (large gourds cut and assembled with wooden nails to carry a mate and yerba for people who sip it without sugar), books about yerba and its traditions, and a yummy fruit cake in which the infusion was the liquid ingredient.
The museum is open at Lavalle 289 in Tigre from 11am to 6pm Wednesday to Sunday. Phone 4506-9594 or see http://www.elmuseodelmate.comf/ for further information.
For more on yerba history and the steeping technique, see The Yerba Story. On where to stay and learn more about the yerba culture in Misiones and Corrientes, see The Yerba Mate Trail.
PHOTO CREDITS: Two gourd mates, one painted and the other covered in rawhide(Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. Three horn mates (Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. Upper Circuit, Iguazú Falls, Marcelo Imbellone. Cane mate with carved wooden yerba container (Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. Porcelain mate circa 1910 (Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. Spooners' mate (Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. Mates covered in chicken skin and rawhide (Museo del Mate), Bonnie Tucker. "Mate Listo" disposable kit, Establecimiento Las Marías.