27 June 2007

Finding the Perfect Maté: Pt 1

I am obsessed with a subtropical leaf: Yerba Maté, that is.

This is the first in a series of ongoing investigations into the mystery of the maté. For those uninitiated among you, maté is a drink superficially similar to tea in that it is steeped and either drank hot or iced. The leaf known as Yerba Maté is a species of holly that grows in subtropical regions of South America, where among locals the drink is ubiquitous.

The taste of a good maté could be characterized as a dry, pungent infusion similar to an oversteeped green tea but with a whole lot more earthiness. In these summer months I have taken to drinking it over ice, with no sweetener. If you like sweet drinks, stay away from maté; sugar and honey ruin its natural characteristics.

While certainly maté can be served in a tea cup, the traditional and more conventional way to drink it is from a gourd. This practice is really an art unto itself and I will not pretend to be a master. In our ongoing look at the drink, I hope to talk to some folks who make the gourds and bombillas (metal straws) used in drinking maté.

But this first post is all about taste and obsession.

I first tried maté a decade ago, sharing a gourd with a friend who had just returned from a trip to South America. I was fascinated by the process of brewing the concoction and I was literally mesmerized by the taste. The drink is caffeinated, but the effect feels different than either the rush of high-octane joe or the slow tinge of a black tea. Maté comes at you with a subtle saunter; the drink seems to layer and whereas on the watery top layer tiny bits of leaf meander, the deepest levels of the drink offer rich dry heartiness. The drink is a poem which upon deeper inspection reveals myriad layers of meaning.

In part II, we'll take a look at the history of the drink and the proper way to prepare it. In the meantime, here's a little more for your consumption.

1 comment:

Savanna said...

My mom used to live in Brazil. She said there were Mate vendors all over the streets. At school I've got a friend who is rarely seen without her cowhorn full of Mate. It looks like a gunpowder horn hung at her side.