Millions of people around the world drink tea every day and each and every one of those millions of people have a different experience each time – that’s the beauty of tea.
King of all teas are the English High and Low Teas. Steeped in historical tradition with ceremony, pomp and circumstance it is one of the tea worlds most indulgent experiences.
In Argentina, tea culture evolves around Yerba Mate, a cousin to the traditional English tea. While the plant looks and almost tastes like traditional black tea, it’s actually a different plant, a sort of cousin to traditional strain of tealeaf varieties but it also has a very strong cultural ritual.
If you’re a visitor to Argentina, you’ll find it difficult to find mate on restaurant menus because unlike English tea, it’s not enjoyed with a meal but instead, sipped as a social ritual with friends in homes, at parks, in the street or at social gatherings.
Here’s how to make a mate. A special mate cup is filled to the top with dry Yerba Mate leaves. Then hot water is poured overtop, just enough to cover the dried leaves. The water cannot be as hot as boiling but just hot enough to steep the leaves slowly.
A special straw called a Bombilla is put into the cup. This straw has a tea strainer-like bulbous end at the bottom to prevent tea leaves from getting into your mouth and the top is where you sip the tea. You make only one cup of mate that is passed around a small group of 2 to 6 friends, each one taking their sip and passing it back.
Because you need to constantly be filling the mate cup with water, in mate bars in Buenos Aires you’ll get a thermos of hot water to accompany your mate. When mate is enjoyed in public areas you will see people with thermoses of water and the one-cup of mate continuously being filled and passed around.
Sugar is optional and the flavour continually changes. The first few sips of mate are strong and bitter, kind of a mouthful of tannins and caffeine. Then as the mate is drank and water continuously added, the drink gets weaker and weaker. The drink is finished when no more flavour is extracted from the mate.
Depending on which region of Argentina you have mate, it could be flavoured with coffee, honey, cinnamon, dried orange or other herbs. It’s a drink with flavours that continually change and those who drink it will tell you it is very much like coffee, it gives you a great pick-me-up, energy boost when you drink it.
It’s a drink Argentineans very much keep to themselves and if you’re lucky enough to find a restaurant featuring mate, remember the ritual – it must be shared.