Argentinian tea rituals July 07 2015

I was lucky enough to experience the rituals of Argentinian tea drinking culture right here in New Zealand when our Argentinian friends Lilo and Virginia came to stay.  Ritual Tea Company is named so because of the amazing and beautiful rituals around the world’s second most consumed beverage.  The rituals are different in every country.  Here’s my experience of yerba mate tea from Argentina…

My sister Jess became friends with Lilo while they were working on a mountain in Canada.  Being so far away from home, Jess didn’t want to endure seven months without her favourite Ritual Tea, so she took supplies!  One day Lilo arrived in Jess’s room, planted himself on the floor and started chatting.  Jess was making a cup of tea at the time so she made one for Lilo too.  He loved it.  Rituals around a cup of tea are strong for Lilo; being Argentinian, a cup of mate tea is never far from hand.  Lilo associates tea with home, good people and good conversation.  And so their new ritual and friendship began.

Back in New Zealand Lilo brewed me up my first taste of yerba mate.  Yerba mate is a herbal brew (‘yerba’ meaning ‘herb’), so it’s not officially ‘tea’.  It’s a species of the holly family.  Lilo brought a white bag of Yerba Mate that looked like a 1.5kg pack of flour.  The packages are this big because they drink so much of the stuff.  Next out came the vessel – made out of a dried pumpkin – wow!  Lilo’s friend had engraved the plains of Argentina and two horses on the outside of the pumpkin, using a magnifying glass and the sun!  His friend gave him the vessel as he left Argentina to travel the world, so he would always be reminded of home.  When Lilo sticks his nose in the sack of tea and says “it’s like home in a bag”, you can feel the emotion. 

The brew is prepared by filling the vessel about three-quarters full with the dry leaves of the mate plant.  A metal straw is added (at a specific angle!) and it is then filled up with water at 80°C, the same temperature as green tea; hot but not boiling.  I’m silly and ask Lilo if he wants a thermometer - he’s done this ritual a thousand times before and knows the heat of the water by touch.  If you can put your hand over the steam and can leave it there, it is the perfect temperature.  I’ll have to try this next time I’m brewing up some green tea!  If you brew the mate with hotter water it will become bitter, just like green tea.

The water always gets poured by the owner of the vessel and they drink the first round.  It gets refilled and passed clockwise (always clockwise).  All up, around  one litre of tea is consumed.  The taste… smokey, bitter, strong.  And apparently I’m not even drinking a particularly strong brew.  The second round is much nicer, it’s a bit cooler and the strength has reduced a little.  As Lilo says, it’s all about the ritual.  As much as I enjoyed the taste, it was the rituals around the brew that really captured me (and that adorable pumpkin that fit perfectly in my hand!).

Lilo and Virginia have gone now but to remind them of their time with us, I gave them some Ritual Tea which I hope they enjoy on their travels around the rest of New Zealand.