Monday, September 8, 2014

Buenos Aires: Yerba mate from the source

Academic pursuits recently afforded me the opportunity to cross the equator for the first time. Five days scheduled in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was excited about (a) seeing water drain the other way around, (b) steak, steak, and more steak, and (c) drinking mate at the source.

You'd think the latter would be easy to find — particularly given stats claiming that "every man, woman, and child" consumes 11 pounds of mate annually — but you'd be wrong. While mate is consumed widely by Argentines, I found that to be largely a private endeavour. Try to find mate served in a restaurant or shop, and you do a lot of walking with nothing to show for it.

Mate is not something I've written much about on this blog. That's largely because the first time I tried a quality dose of it, I wound up with the worst headache I've ever had. Was it the mate? I steered clear, just in case. Since then, I've dabbled amid the trend without getting too excited about it.

Yerba mate has been celebrated as having all the kick of coffee with all the health benefits of tea. (Like most infusion-related health claims, these have yet to be seriously studied.) It's made from the leaves of a holly tree from the South American rainforest. The dried leaves are steeped, like tea, in hot (not boiling) water.

In Argentina, the custom is to steep the mate in a cured gourd and sip the infusion from a bombilla, a metal straw with a filtered submerged end. It looks like a bowl of grassy soup, and the flavor is very vegetative, like a strong white tea blended with sage and geranium.

After some serious hunting throughout Buenos Aires, at the 11th hour I found a restaurant that served mate — but only in the afternoons, after opening at 1 p.m. (or close to it, such is the Buenos Aires easy-go), and only in winter (which it was in August). Cumana, at Rodriguez Pena 1149 (east of one seriously interesting and beautiful bookstore, where I bought a book about mate, even though it's in Spanish, which I don't read), is a good traveler's find: affordable menu, good food, casual atmosphere, and snacky portions. Cumana serves a thermos of mate, with sides of bread or biscuits. The above description stands, and the caffeinated stimulation is significant. I enjoyed a gourdful prior to my departing flight, a 10-hour trek on which I expected no sleep, so mas mate!

A final photo: The family of Juan Carlos Pallarols has been turning out the finest silver ware in Buenos Aires for generations — which is saying something in a country that's name is taken from the Latin word for silver. They made the silver death mask for Evita Peron, and each president of Argentina receives a ceremonial staff made here. I walked to see his shop one morning (closed, alas), and the window display featured these sterling mate gourds. The next time I try mate, I'd like it to be out of this ...


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