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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Uruguay

Uruguay’s National Drink is More
Than a Pick-Me-Up; It’s an Obsession

  MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – One of the first things you notice walking around this capital city of 1.5 million is that seemingly half the adults carry a thermos jammed into one of their armpits. On the opposite side, in their hand, they hold a mug with a metal straw protruding from the top.

  This was my introduction to mate [mah-tee], a tea-like beverage that is a national obsession in this small, coastal South American country wedged between Argentina to the south and Brazil to the north.

  I saw the mate drinkers of all ages in small groups, pairs and walking solo on every city street. Interestingly, there is no such thing as a mate café, as we in the U.S. might think would be the case considering our own obsession with coffee. Mate, it quickly became apparent, is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a caffeine-fueled pick-me-up.

                                                                    * * *

  Curious to know more I found the perfect source – street vendor Ricardo Ledesma. For 20 years, he’s been hawking mate paraphernalia at the prime Old City location of Constitution Square and Sarandi, a busy pedestrian walkway.

  It’s a Monday afternoon. Foot traffic is light, so Ricardo has time to talk.

  We begin with some history.  When Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors invaded central South America in the 15th and 16th centuries, they found that mate was a favored drink of the many indigenous tribes. They grew the herb-like plant, known as yerba mate, for medicinal purposes as well and processed the green leaves and stems in a manner not dissimilar from today’s methods.

  I ask: Does Uruguay produce yerba mate?

  “No, my friend,” says Ricardo, a warm and friendly guy. “Uruguay is no good for growing mate.”

  He then explains that although Uruguayans are the No. 1 mate drinkers in South America - Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil are the major yerba mate growers, with Brazil the top producer.

  “All of our mate comes from Brazil,” he says.

  Ricardo turns his attention to a group of customers who, clearly, are tourists. I scan his inventory. Stacked on three levels of well-worn wood planks is a wide assortment of mate gourds made from calabash trees or ceramic.  Some have wider mouths. I later learn that relates to the type of yerba mate inside the gourd since the materos – as the mate drinkers are called – need to maneuver the water-logged herb with the metal straw – the bombilla – to make sure the liquid easily flows through the crushed leaves. [The bombilla has a filter near its end to keep mate drinkers from swallowing herb particles.]

  Ricardo is back.  I ask about the various gourds and customer preferences. He explains that tourists mostly like the ceramic gourds as they’re easily maintained. But some locals like them as well for the same reason.

  What do you like? I ask.

  Ricardo smiles and reaches behind his vendor stand to grab his personal mate gourd and thermos. With a caramel-colored base topped with an ornate metal trim, it’s a beauty. He says it’s made of calabash. The metal bombilla also is ornately designed and includes a wide, gold-plated tip.

  “I’m a traditionalist,” Ricardo says, explaining that calabash gourds require more work to keep clean and seasoned as well as a particular skill to ensure it properly functions, making it difficult for novice mate drinkers.

  I ask how often he drinks mate. He laughs.

  “All day long, my friend. But never at night. It keeps me awake.”

Sampling Mate

  His mate habit might, in part, explain his high-energy level. The man is 61 and is on his feet most of each day. Prior to opening his mate kiosk, Ricardo hawked newspapers for 20 years. When that business dwindled, he switched to mate. It’s provided a decent income, he says, for his wife and three children.

  “Would you like to try it?” Ricardo asks

  “Sure,” I respond, recalling that I’ve sampled qat in Yemen, hashish in Lebanon and am familiar with the betel nut craze in Myanmar. Unlike those three, mate is not a narcotic. In fact, in addition to caffeine the herb includes a number of healthy antioxidants.

  Ricardo passes me his gourd – sharing is another mate tradition for some – and I take a pull on the bombilla. To me it tastes like green tea – somewhat bitter but not overpoweringly so.  Ricardo reads my expression and asks if I’d like some sugar. I decline.

  “It’s fine,” I respond.

  He says that mate is very much a personal experience.

  He explains: “You prepare your mate for you. Others might not like the way you do it.”

  One thing almost all Uruguayans agree on when it comes to their mate is that their water must be hot, hence the thermos. Not so in neighboring Paraguay, according to Ricardo.

  “They use cold water.”

  Another group of tourists turn up. I notice they pay with credit cards on Ricardo’s hand-held pin-pad. That surprises me as I assume he prefers cash. Ricardo chuckles when I mention it and shakes his head.

  “It used to be all cash, which I loved. Now, no one carries cash so I have to accept credit cards. That means I have to report all my sales.”

  That, I tell Ricardo, is a universal issue.

  I ask about his customers. About half are tourists, he says, though that business has dropped off the past few years - first with COVID and, more recently, because of a more favorable exchange rate in neighboring Argentina.

  Ricardo’s regulars are mostly office workers who work nearby in the Old City. Mate drinkers have to keep a fresh supply of yerba mate – he sells it for $5.50 a kilo – and they always have on hand multiple mate gourds for various occasions, he says. [His gourd prices average around $13, which is about the cost of a bombilla.]

  “You going to be doing this much longer,” I ask Ricardo.

  He shrugs and says he’s too young to retire. He’s confident he can run a successful business for as long as he’s able.

  How so? I ask, thinking how his first business ended with the decline of newspapers.

  “My friend,” he says, “there are two things Uruguayans care about more than anything else in life. Futbol [soccer] and mate.”

Editor’s note: Second in a series from a reporting trip to Uruguay Oct. 8-12, 2023

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