Monday, September 25, 2023

Yerba Mate

Annamaria on Monday

Among the plants the first Europeans found in the New World were many that rather quickly became important parts of the European culture.  Tobacco comes quickly to mind.  There was another, yerba maté that slowly gained huge popularity, but then fell out of favor, and is now - once again - increasingly sought after.

Yerba Mate' is an indigenous tree that grew wild in that heart of South America, in an area occupied by the Guarani' people.  They harvested its leaves and twigs and soaked them water to make a beverage that helped them find the energy to deal with their primitive lives.  Mate'contains more caffeine than coffee or Ceylon tea.

Old myths told of a visit to the heart of South America by the goddess of the Moon, who was delighted with the beauty of the place.  But then she was threatened by a Jaguar that wanted to devour her.  An old man came to her defense and killed the jaguar.  In gratitude the goddess gave him and his people the yerba mate tree. 

With the arrival of Europeans, in the 16th Century, the Spanish settlers also began to enjoy the drink they called Mate (pronounced as two syllables.). When the Jesuits began to defend the Guarani' against the Portuguese and Spanish slave takers, they gathered them into Indian "reductions" - communes, and the priests learned to domesticate the plants and create orchards.  With the increase in suppply, mate' became more and more known and more and more popular.

Eventually, when the Jesuits were expelled in 1776, the plantations were taken over by the crown.  The popularity of the yerba mate continued spreading across South America, and eventually to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France.  And Paraguay became enormously rich.

So rich that it's dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez thought he was wealthy enough to take on a war with Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. That war is the background history to my novel, invisible Country. And in that war Paraguay lost 25% of it land to Brazil and Argentina. The victors, of course of, took the most valuable parts of Paraguay: those where yerba maté grew.

Then and now, mate' is typically drunk from a calabash gourd.  Early on the Europeans' began fashioning special cups decorated with silver that are still popular in Paraguay and Argentina. Here are some close-ups of my mate' cup that is also shown the photo at the top.


The straw, called a bombilla, is designed to for allowing a person to drink without imbibing the leaves or the twigs

Customarily, family members, when visited by friends, stand in a circle, and pass the gourd around clockwise. The first person drinks, and then the gourd is refilled for the next person, etc. At the very end, everyone says thank you. It's a social faux-pas to say thank you before everyone has drunk.

Nowadays, in South America, the drink is still very popular. Wherever I went in Paraguay and Argentina, especially outside of Buenos Aires, even in Brazil near Igusu Falls, in the parking lots of places that travelers visit, there were people, mostly men, in or near the cars, drinking mate at all hours of the day.

Currently, mate' has gained a following in the Middle East, and with the arrival of many South Americans to the US, it is more and more popular here, where it accounts for 5% of the caffein drinks, and growing each year.

What about you?  Have you tried it?  Would you care to? For me, I tried it when I first encountered it Paraguay. I think it must be an acquired taste.  And I think I am too Italian to prefer any source of caffein other than a delicious espresso.

I will leave you with this taste of the brilliant, the gorgeous The Mission, a film about those Jesuit missions in Paraguay.  If you have never seen it, watch it!  Even if you have, I promise you, you will be glad to see it again.


  1. Thank you for this--I've never tried mate, but now I'm really curious to! Not sure anything could replace coffee for me, though.

    1. Let me know what you think if you try it, Ovidia. Ditto re the movie.

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