My own mate education began in the northern province of Tucuman where it’s common to shovel spoonfuls of sugar over the leaves to level out its characteristic bitter taste. Pairing the drink (which my hosts sipped on all day long) with medialunas and a quantity of cookies and candies that made me feel like my teeth were going to fall right out of my head. Needless to say, I didn’t encounter the magical cultural experience I had been promised. Each sip was an unpleasant surprise, and although I drank it out of politeness my stomach silently protested each swig. Once back in Buenos Aires, my porteño friends made it their mission to wean me off of the sugar and I slowly began to crave the harsh earthy flavor and the rules and rituals that make it so unique.
Yerba mate has a long standing history in the region that dates back to the indigenous Guarani. They believed that the plant was an offering from the gods. The leaves were ripped whole off of the wild bushes and chewed similar to coca leaves, before eventually being infused with hot water. It was the Jesuits who turned the comparatively casual consumption into an all out addiction. So fiendish were the settlers that many sold their belongings to keep up with their daily habit, and city mayors began a prohibition style campaign that banned its transport and consumption. Getting caught for possession of yerba could even get you a hundred lashings. A few centuries later and the addiction has become mainstreamed, but Argentines are, for all intents and purposes, still very much addicted to the yerba.
Unlike other food traditions like pizza and asado that have felt the wave of a modernized ‘de autor’ food movement, yerba mate has been left relatively untouched. For a country that annually consumes five kilos of yerba per capita, it seems logical that an abundance of mate flavored products would saturate local restaurants and super markets. But with very few exceptions – most notably a specialty infused mate gin – few people have pushed the boundaries of yerba.
Martín, Jimena, and Marcela are three friends that launched Mate & Co in Decemeber. Lifelong “mate fanatics with a passion for entrepreneurism,” they have developed six distinct varieties of yerba mate blends that can be enjoyed with the traditional gourd and bombilla or as a tea infusion. The initial launch was so successful that they sold out of the first batch before they could even think about putting in a second order.
“Combining mate with different flavors is nothing new, but there weren’t any products out there that really reflected the gourmet revolution that you are seeing happening in Argentina right now,” Martin begins to explain. “You see a lot of interesting things happening with tea, but nothing with yerba mate despite how popular it is in Argentina.”
“Mate culture is really important here,” Jimena adds, “but if you look at the products out there it’s all a bit stagnant. The branding, the mate accessories, the quality of the yerba, nothing really changes. We wanted something new.”
I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical; despite my general lack of respect for sticking to tradition when it comes to food, mate feels sacred to me. That and (don’t hit me, Brits) but I hate tea unless it has the word ‘chai’ in front of it.
Martín hands me a small metal tin that has been decorated with pastel red and blue stickers. The top reads “Red Love No. 4”. As the three continue talking excitedly about the project, I open the tin and get lost in a fruity fragrance that immediately clouds my remaining senses. For this particular blend, the traditional yerba is mixed with black tea leaves and dried red fruits. “We wanted to fill traditional mate with lots of color.” The team worked together with professional tea blenders and mate connoisseurs to create six styles that weren’t just flavorful, but that also took advantage of the health benefits of the ingredients.
Three are meant to be sipped from a traditional mate cup – Chai, Tres Mentas, and Lemon Detox – and three meant for a tea infusion – the aforementioned Red Love, a green tea and lemongrass blend, and a chamomile and marigold mix.
“We knew from the beginning that we wanted to create a product that was organic and healthy,” Marcela explains, “The world is becoming more conscious of what we put into our bodies, and it was really important to us to be part of that movement towards a healthier lifestyle.”
When I finally sat down with a hot cup of Red Love on a cold winter day during Christmas vacation to the northern hemisphere, I pleasantly discovered a new ritual. The leaves are packed loosely in the tin which requires you to pack your own tea infuser like you’d pack a gourd before letting it steep in hot water. Once steeped, the earthiness of the yerba and floral aromas of the dried fruits sprung out of the steamy cup of tea. The flavor was light, familiar and comforting.
And although I don’t think I would trade my mate addiction for a cup of tea any time soon, I’ll definitely be switching up my normal Taragüi for a yerba chai blend.