Mate is ubiquitous in Uruguayan society, regardless of gender, class, or age. A ranch owner drinks it with the cowboys, as does a grandmother with her grandson. We take mate with us when we go for a walk along the waterfront in Montevideo or go on a family trip or just get together with friends at the park.
Although we’re the world’s biggest consumer of yerba, the herb infused to make mate, we don’t grow it. It’s imported from Misiones, a province in northeastern Argentina along the border with Paraguay. Yerba mate was originally brought to Uruguay by Jesuit missionaries in South America in the 1600s.
According to Uruguayan food anthropologist Gustavo Laborde, the Jesuits sold provisions (yerba mate, cotton fabric, leather, wood, tobacco and grains) to other colonial communities. Their botanical knowledge helped develop the yerba industry. But the gauchos (cowboys) were the ones who popularized drinking mate across Uruguay and made it a social ritual. They were also the first cebadores—those in charge of preparing and pouring mate for a group.
Mate is often shared by two, three, or four people. Cebadores must not forget that making and pouring mate is a ceremony. Always keep your mate at the right temperature—hot, at 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit). Serve your mate drinkers in a circular fashion and don’t stop serving until a person says “thank you.” That means he or she is out of the mate circle.
Choose your type of yerba mate. This is crucial, as it determines the flavor. While Argentinians prefer a mixture of leaves and stems, Uruguayans prefer the Brazilian brand Canarias, a powdery type made with only leaves that is strong in flavor, bitter and high in mateína (the caffeine in mate). We typically drink mate out of a cured squash gourd (also called a mate), but nowadays ceramic mates are popular because they’re easy to clean and leave no residual taste.
Pour the powdery leaves into the gourd until it is about 3/4 full. Tap the side of the gourd with your hand to level the leaves.
Tilt the yerba to one side to form what we call a mountain.
Pour two tablespoons of cold water on the opposite side of the mountain and then add warm water until the gourd is 1/4 full. Let it rest eight minutes to absorb the water.
Carefully insert a metal straw (a bombilla) at an angle so that the bottom is in the mountain and the top is on the opposite side.
Slowly pour hot water alongside the straw. Never let the water reach the top layer of leaves. If you do this step correctly, the mate should produce a small amount of foam.
When adding water for additional servings, always add it slowly, soaking just a little bit more of the mountain. This keeps the flavor of the mate fresh.
Enjoy and share!