A social ritual
As we bounce and rattle over the dirt tracks of Península Valdes, our guide passes around a small silvered cup of mate (pronounced ma-tay), the traditional, bitter Argentinian tea. The gourd is packed to the rim with a dark green, leafy wet mixture and there is a silver straw protruding from its depths. Originating amongst the country’s indigenous tribes, such as the Guaraní, the sharing of mate by passing the single cup amongst friends is a key social ritual in Argentina. Slurping loudly on his straw, Hugo happily instructs us in its traditions and etiquette.
Preparing the Yerba Mate
This technical task is carried out by the mate “master” (cebador). He fills the gourd about two-thirds full of yerba. Then, placing one hand over the mouth of the gourd, he tilts it upside down and shakes it. Turning it the right way up, he shakes it again slightly so that the heap of mate slopes diagonally up to one side of the gourd. He then carefully inserts the straw (bombilla) and gently pours hot water in beside it. Hugo tells us that temperature should be about 80°C and never boiling. The cebador drinks first, as the first infusion is usually bitter. He drinks all the liquid, then refills it with hot water and passes it to the next person.
Sharing Mate, Dos and Don’t
1. When mate is offered, it should be accepted.
2. Smile and take the offered cup silently. Do not say graçias.
3. Never touch the straw.
4. Drink all of the liquid until the bombilla makes a loud slurping sound.
5. Always pass the gourd back with the bombilla facing the person to whom you are handing it.
6. Mate always passes in rounds. It’s customary to drink at least two rounds (“One for each leg”, Hugo cackles).
7. When you have had enough, then you can say graçias signalling that you don’t want any more.
As person after person sucks loudly on the straw, I can’t help but think about germs and hope that nobody has a cold-sore. I just can’t help it! Eyes glinting, Hugo mischievously informs us that foreigners are usually more concerned about germs. I carefully apply a pokerface, determined not to be a disinfectant-spraying gringo. Damien whispers to me, “Just think of all those extra antibodies!”, and I slurp my mate noisily. Damien slurps louder still!