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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, yerba mate (pronounced YAIR-ba MAH-teh ) 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 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.

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.

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.

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