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

August 10, 1988|JAMES F. SMITH | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — "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, \o7 yerba mate \f7 (pronounced \o7 YAIR-ba MAH-teh\f7 ) is as rich in tradition, and as stylistically demanding, as the Japanese tea ceremony.

Across the bottom half of South America, wealthy aristocrats and simple peasants are quick to tell the uninitiated that \o7 yerba mate \f7 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, \o7 mate\f7 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, \o7 yerba mate \f7 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 \o7 mate \f7 for five years, with an eye toward importing it to augment the Japanese diet.

\o7 Mate\f7 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, \o7 mate \f7 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, \o7 yerba mate \f7 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 \o7 mate \f7 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.

"\o7 Mate\f7 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 \o7 mate \f7 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, "\o7 mate\f7 is an overcoat. One of the best experiences I had with \o7 mate \f7 was when I was in Chicago, and it was 27 below zero. With \o7 mate, \f7 I was perfectly warm. I always travel with my \o7 mate.\f7 "

Hector Da Rosa, the caretaker of a Buenos Aires apartment building, demonstrates with reverence the proper technique for drinking \o7 mate. \f7 He nearly fills his \o7 mate, \f7 which technically refers to the calabash rather than the herb, with the crushed leaves of the \o7 yerba \f7 (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 \o7 bombilla, \f7 a silver tube with an oval filter that keeps the herb from entering the tube.

Many Words for Plant

\o7 Mate\f7 has a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words like \o7 bombilla, \f7 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--\o7 cebar\f7 , which normally means to "nourish."

Da Rosa dampens the herb with tepid water, then heats the water further in a \o7 pava\f7 , or \o7 mate \f7 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 \o7 mate\f7 . The brew is thick, almost pasty.

Then, leaning back in his chair, he sips slowly, careful not to let the \o7 bombilla \f7 move within the mixture, which is bad form. He passes the \o7 mate \f7 to a first-time user, who finds it dauntingly bitter and strong, yet rich and satisfying.

After three or four sips the \o7 mate \f7 is empty. Da Rosa adds more water from the \o7 pava, \f7 which has been maintained at a constant temperature on the stove, to the \o7 mate. \f7 He gingerly shifts the \o7 bombilla \f7 to the opposite side of the \o7 mate, \f7 where the herb has not yet been exhausted, readying it to be sipped and passed around again.

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