The legendary nature of Yerba Mate
Chimarrão, the sugar-free beverage prepared in a gourd and sucked through a bombilla, comes from the infusion of yerba mate (ilex paraguariensis). Yerba Mate is a plant native to South American forests, including the Rio Grande do Sul. The habit of consuming mate, which is practically a ritual, is not recent; it’s origin has a legendary nature, inherited from the Guaraní indians. It is believed that the use of yerba mate was transmitted by Tupã, god of thunder, who passed the knowledge of the herb to the indians. The term cimarron, in Spanish, is defined as something barbarous, crude and savage (typically an animal), which refers to the strong flavor of the drink.
For many, drinking mate is a routine. It is common to see people consuming it in workplaces, universities, plazas and regional festivals. In addition to the drink, the act of matear (drinking mate) is a tradition handed down from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. Here, in Brazil, people begin to drink mate well before the age of eighteen, maintaining it as a daily habit that extends throughout their lives. It’s because of this that chimarrão is viewed as a family heirloom, where the gourd and bombilla are personalized with the initials of the owner, or the coat of arms of the family farm. Chácaras are small farms that form the nucleus of familial rural production; children are the successors of the enterprise. Each family from each chácara has their own stamp, which is used to both mark their animals and identify who owns an object, such as a mate (also the name for the drinking vessel).
A vehicle of integration among people
We can say that chimarrão is the inspiration of comfort. It is democratic in spirit, and the custom that keeps alive the flame of tradition and affection within the homes of South America; it is the greatest vehicle of integration among people. In the consumption of chimarrão, there is a feeling of experiencing something exclusive, because even though it is done following the same steps, each person prepares a unique chimarrão using their own authenticity to make and serve it.
Before having breakfast, the first thing I do in the day is to prepare mate. After taking a shower, I sit down with the mate, alone. This moment is almost like therapy, where it is possible to both plan the activities of the day and organize my thoughts. One’s relation with this drink ends up revealing much about the life of those who consume it; making the drink and the drinker a cohesive element; making the person represent in him mate’s cultural traits, values and customs, which allows them to make it an extension of their own self. So if every time I mate by myself, I learn something about myself, when I drink mate with others, I learn something about them, broadening my view of the world, people and their origins.
The life of the gaucho
I was born in a town called Santa Maria, located in the interior of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is far south in South America. Childhood memories in which mate wasn’t in the hand of one of my family members, talking around the fire in the harsh winters of Rio Grande do Sul, are truly rare. The years have passed, but the company of the chimarrão remains, maintaining an exclusive place in the backpack in order to support the few hours of sleep that university life provides. Chimarrão is rich in caffeine (a stimulant for the nervous system) and also has many phenolic compounds (antioxidants), which prevent aging and control bad cholesterol.
In the rural Rio Grande area, where the gaucho (cowboy) lives, all life on the ranch (farm work, horseback riding, simple love and hatred) is watered by sips of yerba mate. The man of the field has been, for generations, rooted in preparing mate at the beginning and end of the day; a habit that is present even today in the countryside as much as it is in the big cities. In the cycle of drinking the bitter beverage, elders tell stories of youth, legends and the things they did that are obsolete today; saying that with technology everything has changed, but not the flavor of chimarrão, their eternal confidant. When visiting a home in this extreme south part of the country and continent, we are usually greeted by the warm greetings of locals followed by, “come in, the house in yours.” The first care of good owners of the house will then be to present the visit with a fresh-brewed mate. In times of boredom or joy, in happy or melancholy days, in the ranch or in the open field, the chimarrão is the faithful companion of the gaucho. The calm the stress of the rush of the day, there is nothing better than it. Nor would anything be better than a gourd of mate to aid digestion, when the food weighs heavily in the stomach.
“The sage of life”
And so, the whole life of the gaucho is punctuated by the sips of the bitter drink. The herb of mate, itself, is a physical product of an abstract concept; my identity and the origin of my ancestors. I can no longer imagine myself without the drink, my faithful companion (even at the moment in which I write this). This infusion permeated the entire construction of a continent, remaining indelible in time and evolution, and is now considered an immaterial piece of the patrimony of the gaucho.
With my outstretched hand, I offer a mate, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak a little of the southern end of the continent. It is an honor to be the bearer of so many voices that are united by a very beautiful custom. If I could define mate in words, it would be:
“The sage of life.”
Andressa Parcianello, Brazil