One of the images I’ve always associated with Patagonia is that of the gaucho, sipping tea from a dried and hollowed out gourd using a metal straw. The tea is yerba mate, a South American native plan thought to have health benefits and an appetite stimulating effect.
Drinking yerba mate is common throughout Argentina and Uruguay but in Chile, it is most commonly taken in the cold and windy south. It always seemed a strange practice, drinking a steamy hot beverage through a metal straw, and I’ve always wondered how the nomadic gaucho manages to travel with such a fragile looking shell of a container and not break it.
I’m a big tea drinker and enjoy tea traditions around the world. I buy yerba mate at home from a small South American grocery store in my neighborhood, but my steeping method is the fast and modern way I steep other loose leaf teas, in a coffee mug using a basket-style infuser. For a long time, I had wanted to get one of the traditional vessels and learn to brew it properly.
A social tradition
I had read before that mate-drinking is a social experience quite different from the solitary way I drink it at home. I knew that people often drink it in groups, passing the drink from person to person around the table as they chat. I remember that during the global H1N1 flu outbreaks, public health officials in Argentina were advising the public to avoid sharing yerba mate. I imagined that in Patagonia we would get invited by a family into their home to share in the tradition around the kitchen table. Unfortunately that didn’t work out, but we found mate nonetheless
A café in Puerto Natales
We didn’t go looking for yerba mate when we stopped into a café on the main square in Puerto Nateles, Chile, the gateway town to Torres del Paine National Park. We had about an hour to kill before our planned dinner venue, Restaurant Parilla Don Jorge, opened for dinner (Parilla, a typical style of lamb that has been slow roasted over an open flame and we arrived there before the meat was done).
We walked down the block and saw a sign for El Living Café which features vegetarian food (SO difficult to find in Chile), and comfy-looking couches so it seemed like the ideal place to stop for a drink. We grabbed a couch and perused the menu: Good looking food and appetizers, Chilean wines and local beers, and yes, yerba mate! I noted the owner was drinking a gourd of yerba mate behind the counter so I knew it would be served right. We also ordered some appetizers including a tasty slow-cooked vegetable and coconut milk stew.
The gourd itself is called a maté and the thin metal straw (with a mesh tipped infuser) is called a bombilla. I told the café owner I was interested in browsing the local artisans to buy one to take home and he gave me some tips for getting started.
How to prepare the gourd for its first use
Before you can first use a new mate, you need to ‘season’ it properly to extend its life and make it less likely to rot. He said to fill the mate up with Pisco, vodka or another clear liquid and let it sit for 4 or 5 days. At that time you need to pour the alcohol off and scrape the inside walls of the vessel with a spoon to remove any softened squash seed matter that had loosened in the process.
Some websites also recommend a faster method to cure the vessel using boiling water, I have no idea if this method is less effective or not.
Drinking yerba mate
Fill the mate about 2/3 full of dry leaf and then fill it to the top with hot, not quite but close to boiling water. In the café we were brought the herb-filled gourd and an insulated camp thermos filled with hot water. After infusing at least 1 minute we were free to take a sip and then pass it around, or back and forth as it was just Kevin and I. Typically one person is responsible for filling and refilling the mate with hot water.
Yerba mate is a unique flavor and can be an acquired taste. To me it tastes very green, twiggy and bitter (the more leaf you use and the longer you let it infuse the more bitter it gets). There is one Argentinian company (Taragui) that sells the herb blended with citrus peel and I much prefer that, though it is not the traditional style of herb.
I don’t know about the purported health benefits but it does seem to have appetite stimulating effects and the caffeine affects me a lot more than it does with coffee or tea.
Care of the gourd
When you are done drinking from it, dispose of the leaves, rinse (water only, no soap!) and shake it out to make sure there is no water pooled inside. Dry it out well with a paper towel and let it air dry upside down.