The Yerba Mate plant, which is really a tree, is an evergreen from the Holly family that grows in the subtropical forests Paraguay, Uruguay and Parana. The Yerba Mate tradition originated with the Guarani Indians living in remote parts of South America long before any of the Spanish settlers colonized it. These natives would hand-carve gourds from the Lagenaria vulgaris trees and use the crushed leaves to fill the hollowed out gourd. They would then use a widdled stick to drink the infusion. Ilex paraguariensis, was first scientifically classified by Swiss botanist Moses Bertoni, who settled in Paraguay in 1895. The word “mate” comes from “Matti” in Quichuá, the language of the Incas in Peru, and it actually means “gourd”.
During the eighteenth century, the Vice-kingdom of Peru was the greatest importer and consumer of mate, acquiring it from the Jesuit missions in Guayrá, now Southern Brazil and some of Paraguay. The Spanish used the Quichuá term to denominate the drinking of the tea in the “matti” or gourd. The term found its way back to Guayrá, where the plant took on the name in substitution of the Guarani name: Caá, for the herb and Caáiguá (Caá – herb, I – water, guá – gourd) for the drink. When we say mate, therefore, we are not referring solely to the herb, but to the drinking of mate in a gourd, a tradition that is also called: Chimarrano.
The Yerba Mate plant is a shrub or small tree growing up to 15 meters tall. The leaves are evergreen, 7–11 cm long and 3–5.5 cm wide, with a serrated margin. The flowers are small, greenish-white, with four petals. The fruit is a red drupe 4–6 mm in diameter. The plant needs at least 1500 mm of rainfall per year, an average monthly temperature between 15,5 and 28°C. It is able to survive short term temperature falls to -8°C. Beyond the legend of the tradition, the Yerba Mate contains very important ingredients for the body. First it is the “teina” that stimulates without causing either insomnia or nervous agitation. But in addition it contains vitamins (A, B, C) and is rich in carotene, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium, iron and phosphorus. Jesuits tried to ban the brew for they considered it addictive. But after they realized that natives would actually work more and better -it acted as a stimulator and body energizer- they abandoned the idea. In fact, they decided to start its massive cultivation as opposed to picking up the leaves in the wild.
They studied the plant in-depth and it soon became a major crop in all of the 30 villages they were controlling. After Jesuits were expelled from the colonies and replaced by the religious order of Fransiscans the crops were somewhat abandoned but the demand never stopped and was actually satisfied by crops from other regions. Much later, in 1876, it was the state of Corrientes who issued reglamentation to regulate its production… and a whole industry was born. The infusion is not only drunk through a gourd, sometimes it is brewed just as a tea, and it is known as ‘mate cocido’. It has become such a social symbol that not accepting a sip, provided you are in a typical ‘mate setting’, may be viewed strangely.
The Mate is more than a drink characteristic of Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and the south of Brazil, it is a South American tradition, a rite that is lived daily, wisdom of the relation between adult people. It is more than a custom, because the Mate is a friendship ritual. The first thing that is offered to all visitors in the homes of this part of the continent (Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and the south of Brazil) is the Mate shared. If you would like to enjoy your mate in the traditional way, know that there is no one right way to prepare it. Preparation methods vary from region to region, and each region boasts that their method produces the best mate. However, some basics are common to most of these various methods of preparing mate. These are that it is prepared in a gourd, the dried mate is placed directly into the gourd, and hot water is added to the gourd. As noted above, boiling water is never used because it can cause the mate to have a bitter flavor.
Food for thought: Albert Einstein was known to enjoy yerba maté. Could that be the secret of his genius? 😉
Preparing it hot is probably the easiest way to enjoy Yerba Mate buds. The liquor is deep green, the aroma is strong and yet subtle, and the taste speaks for itself.
Brew it hot and let it chill or cold steep it leaving the buds in the pitcher over night. I once cold steeped the buds over night and put a lilac flower in the water as well. The flavor was beautiful. Any way you prepare it, the brew is refreshing, energizing, and a beautiful deep green.