The yerba story

Of Jesuits, toucans, and how to steep it.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The yerba mate infusion is the national beverage of Argentines and Uruguayans, although the raw material used to prepare it is different on either side of the River Plate: the Argentines sip the green-tasting liquid yielded by a blend of leaves and stems produced in the provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, while the Uruguayans mostly use fine-milled Brazilian-style leaf.
They all owe their addiction to the Jesuits, who in the 16th century saw how the Guaraní peoples wild-harvested the leaf of the yerba mate (South American holly) tree in the forest for use as an energizer and a social and medicinal beverage, and decided to cultivate it themselves.

The priests observed that the tree’s seed had a hard covering and would not germinate outside the forest where it was eaten by toucans that defecated it with the covering debilitated. Once they had harnessed this bird power, they managed to get the seeds to germinate and cultivate the tree in plantations.
When the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas in the 18th century, their cultivation techniques went with them, and people had to go back to wild harvesting in the forest. Finally, in the early 20thcentury, Pedro Núñez, founder of the Santa Inés ranch, worked out how to make the seeds germinate without birds.
A veritable ritual surrounds the preparation of the infusion, which is doubly confusing for neophytes because nowadays both the liquid product of steeping and the recipient in which it is steeped are called “mate.”
You don’t drink mate, you sip it through a metal straw (bombilla) inserted into a mixture of milled yerba leaves and stems in a small recipient (called mate) with hot water from a kettle (pava) if you are at home, or a thermos if you are traveling.
Traditionally, this recipient is a gourd, but it can also be made of metal, wood, horn, or even porcelain or crystal. This diversity of materials is due to the fact that the immigrants who arrived in Argentina between the 1880s and the 1930s left their cultural imprints on the national mate sipping tradition, which in turn created what was to be one of their most ingrained habits.

Steeping the yerba is an elaborate process. Whatever the size of the mate, you fill it 2/3 full. Then, with a hand on its mouth, turn it upside down and shake for a few seconds so that the fine parts come to the top and the coarse ones go to the bottom, so that the bombilla won’t clog up when you insert it into the leaf mixture. When you turn the mate right side up, you leave a small empty spot to one side; this is where you pour some warm water. Then, with your thumb on its mouth to keep air from entering, you insert the bombilla into the leaf mixture on the side of the mate opposite from the empty spot, and pour hot water in beside it. When the yerba loosens up, you tip the bombilla over to the other side of the mate and have a sip or begin to pass it around. Each steeping produces three or four sips, depending on the size of the mate. When the first guest is through, the steeper adds more hot water to the mate and passes it to the next guest in the rueda de mate (mate round). If you weren’t a friend of the others at the beginning of the round, you will be by the time it’s over.
Yerba mate has a green, slightly bitter taste, but is as addictive as coffee. It may be sweetened with sugar or honey, or taken straight (in which case it is called a cimarrón). While in most places around the country it is sipped hot, in sweltering Misiones many consumers prefer it cold, as tereré.
Scientific research done during the past few years has credited the yerba mate infusion with several beneficial effects on human health. It provides potassium that is good for the heart, and magnesium that improves intellectual performance; it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; it obstructs absorption of cholesterol, and is toxic for certain cancer cells.
Both poor people and women on a diet love it because its vitamins and minerals help one endure little food intake, its caffeine makes them feel good, and it serves as a diuretic.
You can sip it all by yourself as you study, read the newspaper or meditate, watering the dry leaves and stalks from a hot thermos, or even, in a gesture to modernity, make use of its tea bag version, the ultimate gesture to on-the-run modernity.
However, the traditional way of having a mate is with a group of friends, chatting the hours away while awaiting one’s turn for a go at the gourd. That’s why mate is said to promote friendship.

Mate goes without an accent
Some English-speaking foreigners write and pronounce mate as “maté” to differentiate it from the word “mate” that to them means “companion.” This is a big mistake. It is written mate and pronounced mah-teh, with an unwritten accent over the “a.”

PHOTO CREDITS: Guaraní Indians harvesting yerba mate leaves in the jungle, illustration by Father Florian Paucke (1719-1779). Porcelain and crystal mates in the Museo del Mate in Tigre, Argentina, Bonnie Tucker. Steeping mate, Marcelo Imbellone. Mate ready for a sip, Marcelo Imbellone.