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More Than a Drink : Yerba Mate: Argentina’s Cultural Rite

Times Staff Writer

“Yerba mate raises morale, sustains the muscular system, augments strength and allows one to endure privations. In a word, it is a valiant aid.”

--French Society of Hygiene, 1909

Millions of aficionados are almost mystical in their devotion to a pungent South American beverage brewed from the leaves of a tree. Sipped alone, yerba mate offers solace. Shared among friends, it is a communal rite.

In its way, yerba mate (pronounced YAIR-ba MAH-teh ) is as rich in tradition, and as stylistically demanding, as the Japanese tea ceremony.

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Across the bottom half of South America, wealthy aristocrats and simple peasants are quick to tell the uninitiated that yerba mate is more than ritual and not just a savory drink; they swear that it also assures a long and healthy life.

Memories of the Missions

A gift from the Guarani Indians, mate evokes memories of the region’s Jesuit missions, the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay and the industrial advances of modern-day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil. Its lore is steeped in the 19th-Century gauchos of the pampas and the slums of Buenos Aires at the turn of the century.

Today, yerba mate is big business, sold in varying brands and tastes. Indeed, the Japanese may finally convert it from a local passion, little known abroad, into an international elixir. They have been studying mate for five years, with an eye toward importing it to augment the Japanese diet.

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Mate is a proud cultural bond in a part of the continent colonized by immigrants of disparate ancestries. And, for Argentines especially, who usually eschew Latin America and look to Europe, mate is a link to the nation’s Indian and Spanish colonial heritage.

Almost more important than the drink is the elaborate custom of preparing and consuming it. Properly, yerba mate is drunk from an apple-sized calabash, through a finely crafted silver tube equipped with a bulbous filter, and passed from hand to hand among friends.

Rare in Restaurants

Lowly mate is rarely served in restaurants even though, in a concession to hectic modernity, it is available in tea bags and in instant form. At home, the rich are nearly as likely as the poor to start and end their day with it, and often to sip it constantly throughout their waking hours.

Mate is a very cordial, silent and understanding friend,” said Aldo Zucolillo, owner of a suspended opposition newspaper, ABC Color, in Asuncion, Paraguay. “It calms you when you need to concentrate on a task, and it has a great element of sociability. It is a kind of sentimental union.”

Zucolillo enjoys an hour and a half or two hours of mate over his newspapers each morning, and again in the late afternoon. Served cold in the region’s fierce summers, it refreshes and diminishes the appetite, which Zucolillo said explains why there is little obesity in the region.

Served hot on chilly days, “ mate is an overcoat. One of the best experiences I had with mate was when I was in Chicago, and it was 27 below zero. With mate, I was perfectly warm. I always travel with my mate.

Hector Da Rosa, the caretaker of a Buenos Aires apartment building, demonstrates with reverence the proper technique for drinking mate. He nearly fills his mate, which technically refers to the calabash rather than the herb, with the crushed leaves of the yerba (herb) from a half-kilo (1.1-pound) package. His brand, Rosamonte, is one of 200 now on the market, of 1,500 that have been patented. Then he inserts the bombilla, a silver tube with an oval filter that keeps the herb from entering the tube.

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Many Words for Plant

Mate has a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words like bombilla, and one bibliography cites more than 270 words for the plant and the drink. A word even has been adopted for the act of preparing and presenting it-- cebar , which normally means to “nourish.”

Da Rosa dampens the herb with tepid water, then heats the water further in a pava , or mate kettle--but he never lets it boil, sacrilege to devotees because that would burn the leaves, not to mention the mouth. He adds water, creating a dark green foam on the surface at the small opening of the mate . The brew is thick, almost pasty.

Then, leaning back in his chair, he sips slowly, careful not to let the bombilla move within the mixture, which is bad form. He passes the mate to a first-time user, who finds it dauntingly bitter and strong, yet rich and satisfying.

After three or four sips the mate is empty. Da Rosa adds more water from the pava, which has been maintained at a constant temperature on the stove, to the mate. He gingerly shifts the bombilla to the opposite side of the mate, where the herb has not yet been exhausted, readying it to be sipped and passed around again.

Some wealthy households once had two servants just to prepare mate, one for bitter and another for sweet, served in mates of pure silver, with gold adornment, that were a measure of status, to be carefully noted by visitors invited to share in the ritual. Such antiques now sell for $1,000 or more.

Da Rosa’s own background traverses the rural and urban traditions of mate . He is from Missiones province, in the northern panhandle between Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil, where the Ilex Paraguariensis tree grows. He grew up on a settlement that dried yerba mate leaves, one of the complex steps in preparing it for market.

Like many Argentines, his family moved to Buenos Aires for work, in 1969. But joining the ranks of the urbanized did not mean abandoning mate, which Da Rosa, now 37, has enjoyed since he was 8.

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Mate is sacred to us, it can never be lost. When I visit my mother and father, we sit down and drink mate constantly. In Missiones, there are many Italians, Poles and other immigrants. We are from Portuguese descent. But mate is a link between different groups. When any newcomers arrived, we always offered mate. Mate is always there, moving around the group at the table.”

A Link to History

“The people here (in Buenos Aires) have become bourgeois, have lost their roots. Mate helps us hold onto our history,” he said.

Da Rosa prefers mate amargo, or bitter mate. Others take it with sugar or warm milk for water.

The gourd is never used for both sweet and bitter yerba mate. Families have sets of mates, cured and aged to each person’s liking. Da Rosa’s mother uses a 50-year-old mate , passed down from her mother, who was a living rebuttal to any notion that mate might not be good for you. She lived to be 106.

Through the centuries, its high vitamin C content and its caffeine, called mateina here, have helped generations of Argentines work and survive virtually without fruit or vegetables in their diet.

The gauchos, Argentina’s version of cowboys, lived on beef and mate but never developed scurvy, a disease resulting from vitamin C deficiency. The same was true for the immigrants who poured into Argentina’s slums from Europe at the turn of the century.

Dates From Jesuit Era

Mate’s cultivation dates from the arrival of the Jesuit priests in the growing region in the late 1500s. The 1986 film “The Mission,” starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, records some of their history.

The plant grows well only in that area, and attempts to transplant it have failed. The Jesuits managed to cultivate it for the first time, and soon more than 100,000 Guarani Indians moved onto 33 feudal Jesuit settlements in which mate was the primary crop.

Before their expulsion from Latin America in 1767, the Jesuits achieved dramatic advances in production. After they left, the plantations were abandoned. Mate again was harvested from trees growing in the wild.

Not until the turn of this century did serious yerba mate cultivation resume. From a harvest of 1,000 tons in 1914 in Argentina, mate production surged well above demand to 106,000 tons, causing prices to plunge. The government stepped in and limited output, letting it climb slowly with demand over the years. Consumption in Argentina alone now totals 175,000 tons per year, or just over 11 pounds per person. Annual coffee consumption, by comparison, stands at 40,000 tons.

More Popular Than Tea

In Uruguay, the most dedicated of mate- consuming countries, consumption is 22 pounds per person. Brazilians in Sao Paolo drink eight times as much mate as they do tea.

Argentina’s mate exports, not significant until recently, have quadrupled since 1976 to 12,000 tons annually.

The main buyers, according to Luis de Bernardi, of the Argentine mate industry association, are, in order, Uruguay, Syria and Chile. Syrian immigrants took the custom to their homeland on visits, and Syria now takes about half of the exports.

Bernardi sees a strong future for exports, especially since the Japanese have been studying mate intensively as a supplement to their passion for tea. Anticipating that interest, the government has authorized the cultivation of an additional 100,000 acres from next year, bringing the total acreage to 437,000 in Argentina, by far the largest producer.

Rich in Vitamins

Bernardi said mate is rich in vitamins B1 and B2 as well as C, along with a bit of vitamin A, and also contains sulfur. It is a digestive, a diuretic, “and has a regulator for mental health,” he said, and no one has ever discovered any negative health effects.

Research into mate , much of it done before 1944, appears to bear out Bernardi’s claims. Prof. Horacio Conesa, director of academic affairs at the University of Buenos Aires Medical School, has reviewed much of that research. “There is not a single medical contraindication,” he said of the mate habit.

Odes to mate through the years, by foreigners as well as Latin Americans who have studied it, are numerous and often lyrical.

Its ability to sustain soldiers in battle won praise from generals in the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870), which Paraguay lost to armies from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Mate scholar Federico Oberti wrote in a 1971 book on the subject:

Mate is a powerful bond without sinews, it is a tender lover without kisses or caresses, a warmth without flames, a friendly offering. . . . Mate always unites and equalizes those who drink it, inculcating calm and pacific inclinations.”


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