- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

BUENOS AIRES — Tourist Annouk Le Floch is making her first visit to Argentina, and she’s about to get her baptism in the country’s daily ritual of sipping the distinctively strong, sometimes bitter herbal tea known as “mate.”

Using a metal straw, she takes a long sip as steam wafts up past her rosy cheeks from a small wooden gourd filled with hot water steeping the dark green leaves of yerba mate.

“This mate’s sweet and has a unique flavor,” said Miss Le Floch, a 23-year-old French visitor drinking the tea with a manager at an antiques shop in the old quarter of San Telmo, where visitors throng the cobblestone streets to take in tango, flea markets and heaping plates of barbecued beef dished up at sidewalk cafes.

Mate is a hot tea made from the dried leaves of the Ilex Paraguariense bush, which flourishes only in the jungle on Argentina’s border with Paraguay and Brazil. Now it is becoming even more popular, centuries after the tea was first made by the Guarani Indians in a remote corner of South America.

Mate houses — like small coffee shops — have opened and adventurous tourists are trying the tea. Tons of pungent yerba mate leaves are being exported around the world. And a museum exhibition has opened in Buenos Aires dedicated to the ornate silver, gold and porcelain cups and other implements Argentines use to prepare and drink mate.

Sipping mate is very much a communal affair, as it was in the days when gauchos rode herd and imbibed mate from rustic gourds on the wind-swept plains.

It’s a slow ritual that can last hours as friends and acquaintances pass time telling stories and talking about the day’s events.

“Mate is like one’s best friend, speaking little, hearing everyone’s joys and sorrows and enjoying the company of everyone. Mate is always present in a close circle of friends,” said Miguel Vivas, who has been sipping it morning, noon and night for over half a century.

“Mate far excels coffee as a social glue,” he adds. “It involves an entire ritual of preparing the leaves, pouring in the water and bringing friends together. Coffee just doesn’t entertain like mate does.”

Guarani Indians in Paraguay are credited with discovering the pleasures of the mate leaf — known to them as “caa.” Their legends say it was granted to them as a sign of friendship and hospitality by Tupa, a god of thunder and lightning.

Spanish colonizers and 17th century Jesuit priests perfected the industry of collecting, drying and aging the mate leaf for packaging and shipment throughout Spain’s South American colonies.

Nobility as far away as present-day Bolivia and Peru drank the tea from ornate silver-and-gold pots crafted in the likeness of lions and other animals.

Today, the tea is a custom enjoyed by all levels of society, said Roberto Vega, coordinator of the new “Mate in America” exhibition at the National Museum of Decorative Art.

“It has carried down even to our days, and the one defining characteristic of this drink is that it is so ingrained in the cultural identity,” he said.

The exhibit includes hundreds of mate implements, ranging from the fancy porcelain cup of the country’s most famous first lady, Eva (“Evita”) Peron, to the rustic gourds of Pampas cowboys and a simple wooden field kit carried by Argentina’s famous mate-sipping liberator, Jose de San Martin.

At the restaurant La Casa de Mate, pictures on the walls include one of the late Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, shirtless and drinking mate. More than a dozen gourds and mate cups and their metal straws — called bombillas — line a shelf, waiting for patrons.

“Mate isn’t just a drink, but a way for the people to gather,” said Pablo Merolla, who helps run Mate House. “In another culture, it might be unpleasant to all drink from the same straw, but here to clean off the bombilla before taking a sip would be considered an offense.”

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