Visitors aren’t truly welcomed to Uruguay until they try their first round of mate. It is the supreme proof of friendship rooted in the history of the Southern Horn of Latin America.
Not all enjoy the initiation. Once they overcome their reluctance – sharing the same pot with others and digesting a hot, bitter infusion – mate becomes useful against the cold and rain of Montevideo. Even more with the help of old and new friends.
“After the liturgical ritual of preparing and consuming the mate, a new vision of the world and of life appears… mate overcomes the native’s shy inclination… it joins social classes… and it’s always mate that makes a circle of friends,” said the Uruguayan anthropologist Daniel Vidart. The popular Uruguayan ritual has become one of the most important symbols of national culture. One also finds it in neighbouring Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and parts of Chile and Bolivia. Recently, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner met Pope Francis. She presented him with a mate gourd and straw with which to drink traditional Argentinean tea.
In percentage terms, Uruguay is the world’s largest consumer of the mate herb. In different versions, they drink around 400 million litres a year, more than all other cold drinks put together (around 290 million litres), according to business sources.
Other statistics estimate imports of mate in this country – with a population of just over 3 million inhabitants – at 32 million kilos per year. At the same time, it exports 200,000 kilos a year to Uruguayans living in various countries and to Syria, where there is a large community who used to live in the Southern Horn of Latin America. Native Guaranis have a ritual of planting the herb in the tombs of their dear ones and harvesting it later. Drinking it together with their families, they believe the spirits of the dead pass into their bodies.
Spanish colonisers noted that it served as an energising food for indigenous peoples and came to consider it as a threat. The Church even forbade what they called “the devil’s herb.”
Every attempt to eradicate mate failed miserably, as can be seen in the homes, cafés, parks, and streets of Uruguay. The plant Ilex Paraguayensis makes an excellent tonic, diuretic, antioxidant, and anti-depressant – and is not addictive. The term mate comes from the Quechwa word “matí” (calabash). One sips the infusion through a “bombilla” (bomblet) with a seed in the tip as a filter.
Preparing the mate entails filling a calabash three-quarters full of the herb, closing the opening, turning it upside-down, and shaking it so the smaller particles stay in the upper part. It is then turned upright again, water is added, and it is left to stand. Lastly, the container must be filled with hot water and covered for a few moments before introducing the bomblet. This ritual varies according to the family’s tastes and customs and according to the occasion. There is a great variety of ways to prepare mate.
Despite the criticisms of traditionalists, the market offers many varieties: “milk mate,” “tea mate,” and lately, even a fizzy mate drink and mate beers.
Polemics apart, any visitor will agree that mate always reflects the deepest feelings of Uruguayans.