Add yerba mate to the growing list of superfoods – a lineup that includes the likes of açai, mangosteen and goji berries – that are said to promote health through a hyper-abundance of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial elements.
Yet, what is yerba mate? Where do you get it? And what do you do with it?
Simply put, yerba mate is a tea-like drink made from the dried leaves of a tree in the holly family (flex paraguariensis) that grows in South America.
Drinking it is said to offer focus and energy with a scant trace of caffeine. It’s also linked to greater strength and endurance, better sleep patterns, reduced cholesterol and blood pressure, and a healthier immune system. Studies say it can repair damaged gastrointestinal tissues, increase cardiac efficiency and stimulate activity among white blood cells.
As if that weren’t enough, it is also been shown to break down fat in the body, making it a natural diet aid, while increasing the libido.
I can already sense most of you doubting almost everything you’ve just read.
Consider this information, from an article by Dr. Daniel Mowrey: “The tea was introduced to colonizing and modern civilizations by the primitive Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina and has seemingly always been the most common ingredient in household cures of the Guarani,” he writes. “They use it to boost immunity, cleanse and detoxify the blood, tone the nervous system, restore youthful hair color, retard aging, combat fatigue, stimulate the mind, control the appetite, reduce the effects of debilitating disease, reduce stress and eliminate insomnia.”
I was as doubtful as the next person. Then I started brewing my own, and I can at least attest to the improved energy and focus that yerba mate provides – and without being too wired to sleep at night.
I was introduced to the drink by Luciano Ciorciari, former general manager of Pesca on the River, now Ostra, and Brasserie Pavil. Luciano, as he’s known to most, is now running an online food business, www.GauchoGourmet.com, which specializes in yerba mate among a number of gourmet items.
In his San Antonio warehouse on North Loop 1604, he stocks more than two dozen varieties, from organic to herbal-infused mixtures. You can also buy them in different forms, from bags of ground leaves to tea bags. “You can do it in a French press, if you like,” he says.
But yerba mate isn’t for drinking the way people gulp down coffee or tea.
Drinking it is more of cultural touchstone for many, Luciano says. In his home country of Argentina as well as Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, it is a part of daily life, and there’s a ritual to making and sipping it, he says: “It’s very symbolic.”
His mother remembers being awakened with it when she was a child. And to this day, she shares yerba mate with her grandchild every Sunday afternoon when the family gathers.
The process may also seem a little intimidating to the newcomer, but Luciano will gladly demonstrate it for anyone interested. (For a video demonstration, click here.)
If you want to drink yerba mate in the traditional manner, which is recommended to get the full effect, you will need to get two items in addition to the leaves:
- The mate – This is the gourd from which the yerba mate is sipped
- The bombilla – This is the straw-like sipper through which you drink the infusion.
(A single unit that’s like a thermos with built-in compartments for the leaves and hot water as well as the bombilla is available. It’s called a matermo, and it allows you to take your yerba mate on the road with you.)
To get started, you need to cure the gourd. To do this, fill it with the dried leaves and hot water and let it set for a day, he says. Then scrape out the leaves and repeat the process. After two days, any leftover membranes on the inside of the gourd should have loosened and come out with the scraping. Your mate is now ready for use. (You can also buy cured mates, if you like. Or you can just start drinking from the gourd and scraping out the sides after the first two uses, he says.)
Now that you’re ready, fill the gourd at least tw0-thirds of the way full of yerba mate, he says. Cover the gourd with the flat of your hand and invert it, shaking for a few seconds. Set it upright and brush off any dust that may be on your palm. This removes some of the smaller particles from the yerba mate that may clog your bombilla.
Place a finger over the sipping end of the bombilla, then insert the filter end into the gourd at an angle, making sure it touches the bottom.
Bring your water almost to a boil before pouring it over the dried leaves, Luciano says. Fill it until it bubbles on top and give it a minute to allow for steeping. “Yerba mate brews from the bottom up,” he says.
If the bombilla is stopped up, don’t remove it from the mate. Simply tap the mate firmly on a table or flat surface a couple of times and that should loosen things up.
There is generally only one mate for a whole gathering. The host, or cebador, generally takes the first sip, he says, so that any small particles that make get sucked into the bombilla are removed. The gourd is then passed around to the rest of the gathering, so that all may share a sip.
When the gourd is empty, it is passed back to the cebador, who refills it and starts the process over again.
That may not appeal to some germaphobes in the States, but it’s not a problem in South America, Luciano says. “I think this is the best meaning of trust and acceptance,” he says. “It says, ‘I trust you. I welcome you. I accept you.’ ”
The flavor of the yerba mate in its most natural form is grassy, with notes of hay and bark. Like regular tea, it may be a bit too aggressive for some. That’s why sweetened versions and herbal-infused combinations have developed as the market has increased.
Luciano’s customers include many who were introduced to yerba mate while visiting South America. Some have told him that they weren’t too enamored with the flavor when they first tasted it, but they quickly got hooked on it and are glad to find it available in the States.
“My mother says it’s company, because you’re drinking it all day long,” Luciano says. “You’ve always got it with you.”
GauchoGourmet.com offers free delivery in the San Antonio area for orders of more than $50. Orders under $50 can be picked up at the company’s warehouse on North Loop 1604 near Stone Oak Parkway at a pre-arranged time.