On drinking twigs and cocaine

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

You've been to Buenos Aires before, haven't you?
So I'm sure you noticed that the Argentines are noticeably more brooding and insular than the folk of other Latin nations.
The strained, airy notes of the Tango bandoneon carry a depth of melancholy that could empty a Brazilian Salsa club in seconds.
One way in which the Latin social flair appears to penetrate Buenos Aires, however, is through 'tomar mate' (drinking mat-eh).
My first afternoon in Buenos Aires was spent drinking Mate with Mauro, my first host, who demonstrated the entire ritualistic process to me.

First, one selects the Mate (spherical cup) which all present will be drinking out of.

Mauro chooses a pumpkin-shaped wooden Mate, and fills it to three-quarters with 'Yerba Mate' ; the dried leaves and twigs of a variety of sub-tropical holly.
Considering the large log-to-water ratio, I'm not surprised to see Mauro grin and tell me that tomar Mate provides you with 4 times the amount of caffeine than a cup of strong coffee.
Whilst this is going on, Mauro has been allowing a flask of boling water to cool to 80 degrees (Mate becomes very bitter in boiling water) and he checks this by lovingly dunking a massive glass thermometer into the flask. Such is the care and tenderness with which he fills the Mate, that I half-expect him to test again by dipping his elbow in.
Once the contents of the Mate have formed a thick, green paste, Mauro takes a 'Bombilla' (a decorated metal drinking straw with a spherical leaf filter towards the foot) and sternly, slowly, forces it to the bottom of the cup.
"Mate can be a sexual thing as well", he informs me, "If I want to show a girl I like her, I can stroke her hand as I pass the Mate".
A level of water is visible inside the Mate, but Mauro doesn't drink yet, he spends the next five minutes caressing and patting the cup, as though trying to burp a baby.
As a foam forms on the surface, he puts the Bombilla to his mouth, and drinks the first, bitter draught - he is the 'cebar el mate' who is taking the bullet for his guests.
From then on, we take turns in draining the water from the mixture, with Mauro filling and re-filling from the flask, telling me about the social etiquette that surrounds the drink.
"As the cebar el mate, I am the one who fills and passes the Mate. When I pass it to you, the Bombilla is always facing towards you. If not, it's rude."
Just as my fidgeting hands make to poke around the mixture with the straw, Mauro interrupts:
"You NEVER use the Bombilla to stir the mixture- it stays still. And when you have possession of the Mate, you should drink. If you sit talking with the Bombilla facing you, we can say 'stop talking into the microphone".
The drink is strong and bitterly enjoyable. Mauro makes it the macho way, without sugar, leaving only a taste of bark, tobacco and of the chopped up coca leaves he added for kicks.
"Mate is meant to be shared. If you sit alone in a park, and start to make Mate, people will ask if they can join you. If you give the Mate to somebody who doesn't want it, it's polite for them to kiss the bottom of the cup before they hand it back."
At this point he could have told me anything.
" If you spill Mate in a park, you must sacrifice the nearest stray dog and present it's stinking carcass to a passing widow "
After 7 or 8 draughts each, the twigs are floating at the top of the mixture. The ritual has finished.


cartoonhead1970 said...

Did he stroke your hand when he passed it to you?

Sam said...

Nope, but he did get his willy out and wap it onto the table