A Look at Maté

Western tea drinkers tend to treat all of our teas in the same way. The brewing time may vary but the basic pot to tea cup (and often in my case on to surrounding area) procedure doesn’t change. Go further afield though and you can find teas that come with their own specific equipment.

Green Yerba Maté
Green Yerba Maté

Maté is a popular South American non-tea infusion with its own unique requirements. It is pronounced “mat-ay” but spelled “maté.” (Some people prefer to spell it with an accent to indicate the distinction but, as maté means ‘I killed’ in Spanish, a little mispronunciation may be preferable.)

It is made from yerba maté which is a type of holly tree. The dried leaves are chopped and ground to create a powder called “yerba”, from which the infusion is made.

Maté is traditionally served in a hollowed out calabash or bottle gourd. Calabash has extensive culinary uses, with everything from the leaves to the seeds being eaten somewhere in the world despite the fact that it is mildly toxic. The gourds are dried, hollowed and carved to create everything from pipes to instruments to tea gourds. These are confusingly named matés and one gourd is often shared between drinkers.

The maté is infused in the gourd using hot but never boiling water as it results in a bitter flavour. The taste is not dissimilar to green tea and the two drinks compliment each other well. The maté is then drunk using straws or bombilla, traditionally made of silver. The bottom of the straw is widened and contains small holes to act as a sieve to separate the tea from the yerba as it is drunk.

An old Portugese legend says that yerba maté was gifted to an old man who saved the goddesses of the moon and the clouds from a jaguar. So we have a drink gifted from the gods and drunk through a silver straw from it’s own special gourd. You’re going to need some very fancy china to compete with that!

See also: Tea Traditions — South America

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