When people gather to drink mate (mah-tay) something magical happens. It is a simple, humble, daily custom and yet it has all the characteristics of a ceremony.
Like any other ceremony it has its rites which have to be carefully performed in the same way, day after day. It is a moment of leisure with friends and family. In the country, the gauchos sit together around the fogón (the campfire), sipping their mate after a long day's work. Tiredness breeds silence and silently the mate circles from hand to hand. And then, slowly, conversation starts, people come closer together, confidences are exchanged.
"We gathered 'round the camp-fire and the mate started making its visits."- Ricardo Guiraldes, Don Segundo Sombra, 1926
The mate ceremony resembles the American rite of the calumet, the pipe of peace. There too, the pipe goes from hand to hand, completing the circle, offering hospitality and goodwill.
Mate is drunk by everybody: it is drunk by the trucker and his companion in the loneliness of the long, never-ending routes (they use a vessel with a wide mouth into which it is easy to pour the hot water in spite of the jolts along the track); by students, when studying; by workers during their midday rest; at home for breakfast or on any other occasion, rain or shine, in summer or in winter.
"I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and drinking much mate, soon made up my bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never slept more comfortably."- Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1836
The Word Mate
The Guaraní Indians, who live in the northern part of Argentina and the south of Paraguay and who taught the Spanish conquerors to drink mate, call the gourd the vessel from which mate is drunk-caáiguá. The Quechua Indians who live in what is today Bolivia, Peru and northern Argentina call it mati. The Spaniards adopted this word to call not only the vessel but also the tea-like beverage which is prepared with yerba, the dried leaves of an evergreen tree found in that region which was call caá by the Indians.
The mate most commonly used, is a gourd, of the Lagenaria Vulgaris, a climbing plant, which grows in the same region as yerba mate. The gourd is put to dry and hollowed out. It can have several forms; poro, which has the form of a pear; galleta, which means cracker because it is flat and round. The poro is used for sweet mate, the galleta for cimarrón. In order to identify their own mate, the Indians and then the Spaniards started carving their names on it or they painted the mate. They also covered the mate with leather to protect it, especially in those provinces where it was difficult to get a gourd. When the mate became a luxury good, the silversmiths started ornamenting it with all sorts of decorations. The whole vessel was then made of silver, keeping the form of the original gourd. Since the mate cannot always stand by itself, the silversmiths created beautiful bases for them. Old mates are rare and collectors are after them, especially after those made of silver, but the genuine mate drinker prefers his gourds to a silver mate because he says that a well "cured" mate contributes to the good taste of his drink.
"The Mate," Monica Gloria Hoss de le Comte ©1999 (Maizal Ediciones, August 2001)