Lucas was keen to initiate me in the art of mate (pronounced ma-tay) , a well known South American beverage which I had seen advertised but had never experienced. It was Monday night and a national holiday in Spain so we were more relaxed than at a normal class and he had the challenge of explaining in English how to make and drink it. Lucas is Argentinian so this was an authentic experience.
Mate is made from yerba mate and it looks like a leafy and woody tea. The yerba mate is placed in a specially designed cup with a metal straw from which the brew is taken. There is a ritual to making and serving the mate I soon learn. Water is added periodically to the mate cup from a separate jug. The mate cup is passed around and topped up by the server as required. Only the server (cebador) can top it up. It is also really important to never stir the mate with the straw or the drinkers will end up with a mouth of chewy leaves! You have to drink the mate until there is no more water.
I learnt that mate is a way of communicating. It is a ritual. It reminded me of a Chinese tea ceremony as we passed the mate with reverence. I was told that mate drinking takes place everywhere: at the beach, in the office, amongst builders, in the car and even on bicycles! Why? It is a custom in certain countries and people enjoy the effects of the matteine (as opposed to caffeine). Lucas told me his father takes it every morning "to get himself going".
When you buy a mate cup, which looks like a carved out palm-sized wooden pumpkin, you have to treat it first before you can use it. You do this by adding some used yerba and infusing for 3-4 days. So where is the yerba from? It is grown in north east Argentina and South Paraguay and nowhere else in the world. It was the Jesuits who first exploited mate in the 16th century after working alongside the native people who were drinking it. They saw the potential for cultivating it as a crop and today it is drunk all over Argentina. The Jesuits were expelled from Argentina by King Charles V of Spain for not following the rules of the Pope but the custom of drinking mate was well established.
What does it taste like? For the sake of Lucas and Sara, I really wanted to like it. I drink all kinds of teas and infusions and have an open mind. The mate was bitter and not pleasant to even my palate. Some people add sugar to it but I don't think it would have helped. I liked the experience of sharing the mate cup and I definitely felt my body temperature rise after partaking but no, I am not going to be getting into a mate habit! The best part was the chocolate I had afterwards to take away the bitter taste.
Now when I see a sign in a shop that advertises HAY YERBA MATE, I at least know what it is.