It’s 10:30 am in the calm, wide streets of the La Paternal neighborhood, in Buenos Aires, Argentina – a region of small residential buildings, warehouses and art studios.
Marcela Coll climbs and spins on a black acrobatic fabric suspended from the eaves of her circus school, called Circódromo. She slides gracefully until she falls onto the carpet and heads towards the thermos with hot water and the container full of dried yerba mate leaves.
Coll pours water over the leaves and takes the resulting hot light green liquid through the metal pump. And he pours more water on the same leaves afterwards.
With the thermos under her arm and the gourd in her hand, she watches a student being pulled up by the fabric.
Consumed mainly in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil (not to mention Syria and Lebanon), the traditional mate or chimarrão is a hot, bitter and caffeine-filled tea, prepared by soaking dried yerba mate leaves. .
The leaves are placed in a gourd – the cup-shaped container, also called “mate” in Spanish. The gourd can be made from a range of materials. The traditional one is made from gourd or dried porongo, but there are gourds made from wood, metal, glass covered in leather and silicone.
Hot water (ideally at 75°C, so as not to burn the leaves) from a kettle or thermos is poured over the leaves. The resulting tea is sipped by the metal pump several times, until a characteristic noise appears, indicating that the liquid inside the gourd has run out. It’s time to pour more water and pass the gourd to someone else.
There are people who add lemon or orange peels, mint or verbena to chimarrão. Others use more controversial ingredients, such as sugar, honey, coffee grounds and even whiskey.
The last few decades have seen the expansion of yerba mate consumption outside of South America.
Karla Johan is a mate sommelier in the Argentine province of Misiones. She attributes the phenomenon, in part, to Argentine and Uruguayan football players, who took the habit of taking chimarrão to Europe, when they moved to local clubs.
You could even say that chimarrão is the “drink of champions”. On their trip to Qatar to compete in – and win – the 2022 World Cup, the Argentine team took with them 240 kg of yerba mate.
“Now with [Lionel] Messi living in Miami [EUA]he became a great ambassador for yerba mate, like a living showcase of mate consumption”, according to Johan. Detail: Messi consumes yerba mate from Uruguay and not from Argentina.
Recently, the messaging platform WhatsApp introduced the chimarrão emoji, indicating the increased popularity of yerba mate among people seeking to maintain a healthier lifestyle in the post-pandemic era.
Yerba mate, according to Johan, contains higher levels of antioxidants than green tea and red wine, a powerful combination of vitamins (A, B, B1, B2 and C), 15 amino acids and several mineral salts (iron, magnesium and potassium) from the clayey soil where the plant is grown.
These qualities perhaps explain why chimarrão is a common hangover remedy in Argentina and Rio Grande do Sul, where chimarrão is ubiquitous – a faithful companion for the big and small tasks of everyday life.
But, unlike tea and coffee, chimarrão is not usually consumed in coffee shops. It is present at home, at work, in parks, on public transport, in the classroom and at the gym.
“I remember making big decisions by taking chimarrão, like Circódromo”, says Coll.
“Mate is always part of the most creative moments of my life. And when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I say is matecito, matecito… But mate isn’t just for waking up; it’s also something more social, to share “, she explains.
The traditional chimarrão circle, with the gourd passed from hand to hand, and the consumption of yerba mate in general originate among the indigenous Guarani people. The group has existed for at least around 1,500 years and still lives today in the territory that forms southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay.
The Guarani believed in the spiritual powers of yerba mate. For them, “sharing mate was a way of unifying their spirits”, says Diego Morlachetti, tea master and one of the directors of the Tea School at the Inter-American Open University, in Argentina.
For the Guarani, yerba mate was also a rich source of various nutrients and served as an appetite suppressant. These two properties helped them survive long treks.
Indigenous people used yerba mate to dye fabrics, treat liver problems and even as part of their religious rituals, purging themselves to purify their spirit. In fact, it was this purging ritual that caught the attention of Jesuit missionaries who arrived from Europe in the mid-1500s.
“The Jesuits initially prohibited the consumption of yerba mate, when they observed that the Guarani people sometimes overindulged and vomited,” explains Johan.
“But, later, the Jesuits realized that they could commercialize yerba mate. Therefore, they formed plantations and sold yerba mate on both sides of the River Plate [que, hoje, separa Buenos Aires da costa oeste do Uruguai]to Bolivia, Peru and southern Chile.”
The search for sustainable yerba mate
Yerba mate producer Marina Parra maintains an organic farm in Misiones, in northeastern Argentina. She states that “mate is part of our ancestral identity, but unfortunately, the use of herbicides and fertilizers on plantations has spread alarmingly. The soil has suffered erosion and become impoverished.”
Parra is part of a growing group of producers who promote sustainable management of yerba mate production, to generate plants that are more resistant to climate change. They embraced changes like incorporating native trees to provide shade, pollinating insects, cover crops, compost and manure.
Currently, each mate-loving country has its own favorite combination of the herb.
In Argentina, yerba mate leaves are aged naturally for up to two years and contain small twigs of the plant. Uruguay combines aged leaves with powdered ones, with the minimum amount of twigs. This mixture is known for its long-lasting flavor.
Brazilian yerba mate can be immediately recognized by its neon green color and powdery appearance, as the leaves are not aged and are finely ground. This process results in a smooth and slightly sweet flavor.
And Paraguay, with its humid tropical climate, is more inviting for consuming yerba mate with cold water – called tereré. Therefore, the country’s yerba mate includes the addition of dried fruits and herbs. The most famous combination includes boldo and mint.
Although more experienced consumers are loyal to the more traditional form of hot tea, several Argentine brands have found other uses for the plant, such as artisanal mate-infused gin (Apóstoles and Kalmar), craft beer (Laska), mate-flavored kombucha ( Aloja) and powdered yerba mate for use in pasta and even beauty creams.
And of course, three of Argentina’s most popular dishes also received a touch of yerba mate: the ice cream from Helados Garavano, in the province of Corrientes, the traditional alfajores and the pizza topped with yerba mate-flavored mozzarella, an invention of the Dolce pizzeria. Live in the city of Apostoles, in Misiones.
In recent decades, brands such as the North American Guayakí and the German Club-Mate have started to offer yerba mate in the form of a soft drink or healthy energy drink with a fruit flavor, in cans and bottles. Now, several Argentine brands, such as Yará (from the yerba mate producer Origen) and Yací, sell this reinterpretation of chimarrão locally.
Only time will tell whether these new trends will be successful in countries where chimarrão is a national or regional tradition.
Diego Morlachetti believes that the ready-to-drink version of mate could work for the North American market, but “in Argentina, mate has always been a matter of ritual.”
“Chimarrão is not practical. You need the gourd, the pump, the yerba mate leaves and the thermos with hot water. But that’s its beauty.”
For Morlachetti, chimarrão “is made for sharing”.
Read the original version of this report (in English) on the website BBC Travel.