Halfway through our bicycle tour of Buenos Aires, our guide pulled over by the banks of the river in the Ecological Park and asked, ‘What do you think about maté?” He held up a tupperware full something herbal, a hollowed out gourd ( maté or sometimes called guampa) with a metal straw sticking out the top along with a silver thermos bottle.
“I’m still subject to alcohol and drug testing,” I told him. Having been in Peru a few years ago, I knew their maté de coca did contain trace amounts of potentially disqualifying cocaine, so I didn’t want to risk getting busted on a drug test now.
“It’s just tea,” Federico reassured me with a little chuckle. “Just a mixture of strong tea.”
After a little questioning, I agreed to sample what turned out to be not just a popular drink in Argentina but it’s a tradition as well, much like the English take their tea in the afternoon.
Federico, tapped the tupperware and filled the bowl of the gourd with maté de yerba (herbal tea mixture) , shook it, let the dust blow away, then tilted the gourd to let the tea leaves settle on a slant. He opened the thermos and poured steaming hot water into the shallow side of the gourd so as not to dampen all the tea leaves. He used the metal straw (la bombilla) to stir the brew slightly, added more water and tasted it.
He took a few more sips and explained, ” Sharing a maté in the late afternoon, as we are doing now, is something that we all do here in Argentina. It’s a very social thing. The person who brings the maté is server. He starts the process, then passes it around, preparing more as needed.”
He poured more water into the gourd, careful to only let the water pour on the shallow part of the gourd and mixed just a little more of the dry tea on the other side into the brew and let is seep. He passed it to me.
“Here you go. It’s customary to sip and enjoy. Then when you are done, pass it back to me and I’ll fix some more and pass it on to Patty. She’ll enjoy hers, taking her time just like you, then pass it back to me so I can make some more. We’ll continue to pass it around in this manner until one of us doesn’t care for any more. Once you say ‘Thank you’ that means you’re done – you don’t care for any more. So don’t say ‘Thank you’ unless you don’t want any more. We’ll skip you on the next pass.”
I carefully drew on the straw. I already caught a whiff of the strong herbal tea – grassy, dusty and earthy. It was surprisingly hot, perfectly hot in fact, so I didn’t burn my tongue or anything. And it was strong! I’d say it was bitter but it was probably due to the strength of the brew. It wasn’t bitter like a black English tea which leaves an awful taste in my mouth. This was more like aromas of fresh hay or grass in a country field. It did have tones of tea that I’m used to in a tea bag but much more herbal, like oregano, or cumin or loose tea. It was actually pretty good!
I passed it back to Federico who prepared another round for Patty. She was extremely cautious with both the temperature and the taste but also because Federico was sharing the straw with us too. She bravely took her sip and, just like me, evaluated the taste, took another sip, swirled it around in her mouth, and then began to relax and enjoy the maté. We sat and enjoyed the shade and the view as boats passed by. As I looked around us, everyone in the park had stopped for their maté too!
After about half an hour of good conversation and refreshing maté, we packed up and continued our bike tour. From then on, every afternoon, I watched as folks everywhere took out their gourds and paused for their maté.
I grabbed lots of shots of that afternoon tradition. Here’s a few of those pictures.