Yerba Mate

gourd bombilla and mateWhen my sister told me she was going to South America, I had two words for her: “yerba mate”. Not only did she bring back a big bag of yerba mate but she also brought back the gourd (vessel) and bombilla (filter tipped metal straw). Happiness :-)

Yerba mate or maté comes from a species of holly called lIex paraguariensis and so it’s a herbal infusion rather than tea. The plant is native to the subtropical regions of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina and is sometimes called “Jesuits’ tea” or “Paraguay tea”. Harvesting of cultivated plants starts at about 5 years and takes place after winter every 2-4 years. Harvesting looks a lot like tree-pruning but only the smaller branches and leaves are kept. After harvesting, the leaves and small stems are heated, dehydrated, cut, sifted and finally packaged.

brewed mate in gourdYerba mate is unusual in that it is a herbal drink but it has the same stimulating effect as tea and coffee due to the presence of mateine (i.e. caffeine). Historically in Europe it was considered a poor substitute for other caffeinated luxury goods such as tea, coffee and chocolate. It is only since the twentieth century that it has been recognised as a unique beverage and marketed as having “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate”. For more historical and cultural information, see this paper: “Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present“.

As with tea, the flavour of yerba mate is influenced by the soil in which the plant grows but in general, it is light in colour and the taste is a distinctive combination of tree-bark and tobacco. Mate has a high tannin content but it has a lasting flavour that is very pleasant.

To prepare, the gourd is filled with yerba mate until it is three quarters full. After shaking (to ensure the smaller pieces are at the top), the gourd is tilted to one side and the bombilla placed inside. A small amount of warm water is added that is just enough to wet the leaves. The gourd is then filled with hot, not boiling water. The leaves are re-soaked several times by refilling the gourd with water.

Getting sorted

I was setting up the categories for this tea blog and it got me thinking about the neatness of the tea classes. There are six classes or categories of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and pu-erh) and I still find it fascinating (and handy now) that each of the thousands of different teas that are out there can fit into one of those six categories. Better again, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species of plant: Camellia sinensis.

Camellia sinensis

Camellia sinensis

Here are the categories that I have for the blog so far:

  • Tea:
    1. Black – almost fully-oxidised and mostly produced in India (Assam and Darjeeling), Kenya, Sri Lanka and China. E.g. Keemun, Zhenshan Xiaochung (lapsang souchong).
    2. Green – teas such as sencha, Matcha, Gunpowder, Longjing, Taiping Houkui that have had minimal oxidation and kept the green color of the leaves. Predominantly from China, Japan and Korea.
    3. Oolong – partially oxidised and complicated in production, this type includes Da Hong Pao (red robe) and Tieguanyin. Produced in China and Taiwan.
    4. Pu-erh – post-fermented tea from China and called ‘black tea’ in China. Comes as sheng (raw) or shou (cooked). My favourite!
    5. White – made from the buds of the Camellia sinensis and very lightly processed it includes bai mudan (white peony) and Baiho Yinzhen (silver needles).
    6. Yellow – these teas are not easy to find here so this category won’t be used too much to start with but it didn’t seem right to leave it out.
  • Buying tea & storage: looking at where to get good tea and how to store it or age it.
  • Tisanes: This will cover all the herbal drinks that are sometimes referred to as tea but are herbal infusions or herbal teas. This covers peppermint, chamomile, ginger, fennel etc.
  • Rooibos & Honeybush: Technically these are tisanes but they get their own category because I love them so much!
  • Out and About: This is where I post about going for afternoon tea or lunch to see what the tea is like out there.

I’m sure there are plenty more categories that I’ll need to add as I go along but theses will do for a starting point.