Yerba Mate, the national drink of Argentina, has a rich history dating back to PreColumbian times. According to Guaraní legend, the first yerba plant was given to an old man by the Goddesses of the Moon and the Cloud, as a reward for protecting them from a jaguar. Even since then, yerba mate has been a drink of friendship and an important social rite in many parts of South America.
Yerba is a small, shrubby evergreen plant that is a member of the holly family. The leaves contain caffeine, and when dried and boiled can create an energizing, tea-like infusion with a grassy, herbal flavor. Yerba has been cultivated commercially ever since colonial times, when the Jesuits first domesticated the plant. Today, Brazil is the largest commercial producer of yerba, followed by Argentina and Paraguay.
The name “yerba mate” literally means “herb gourd”, from the Spanish “yerba” or “herb” and the Quechua “mati” or “gourd”. This is because yerba mate is traditionally brewed in and drunk from a gourd cup.
As part of the social ritual of yerba mate, everyone drinks from the same cup. Whoever brews the yerba mate should drink the first cup, to ensure that the brew is not too cold or too strong. Then the host will refill the gourd and pass it to the first guest. When the first guest is finished, more hot water is added and the cup is passed to the next guest, and so on until the yerba in the cup has become worn out.
Because the dried yerba leaves are loose in the gourd, a special straw with a sieve at one end is used so that the pieces of yerba can be filtered out. This straw is called a bombilla, and is traditionally made of silver.
While in Argentina, you will have plenty of opportunities to try yerba mate. Remember, if someone you know offers to make some for you, this is an offer of friendship that cannot be politely refused!