The England football team are drinking it and it’s a staple daily pick me up and social tradition in South America. Meet the tea that promises energy and focus, without the jitters
There’s not much a nice cup of tea doesn’t solve, and the England football team would be patriotically inclined to agree, only, they’re not drinking rounds of builder’s. Instead, the players have this week enthused of their love of mate (pronounced ‘ma-teh’), introduced to them originally by way of the Tottenham Hotspurs dressing room, where Argentine players have a instilled a mate ritual.
Danny Rose, Eric Dier and Dele Alli have all admitted that they’re “addicted” to various degrees, and enjoy a “quiet one” together in breaks from training with England. If this is starting to sound less afternoon tea, more a bit illicit, let us reassure you that it’s all above board- mate is drunk by almost everyone in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and parts of Bolivia, and as Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez confirms, it’s so much of an integral daily social custom for South Americans that it’s a verb in itself (Suarez was “mateando” with his Argentina teammates on the plane to Russia this week).
Just why is mate overtaking PG Tips in the player’s lounge, and what is this mysterious drinking vessel all about?
What mate’s made of
It’s immediately recognisable and revered in SA, as registered nutritionist Daniel O'Shaughnessy explains:
“Mate, or yerba mate, is known as ‘drink of the Gods. It’s a herbal tea made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant (a type of holly).”
If you’re expecting a spiky tipple, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s a smoother taste than green tea, but gets more bitter and grassy as it steeps. Sometimes sugar, lemon or honey is added to counteract the bitter tang, but this is considered sacrilegious to many mate puritans. Add hot (but not boiling water), sip it and see.
The mate ritual
Image: Mark Hunter
The preparation, serving and social routine of mate drinking is highly distinctive. It’s drunk from a very often decorative ‘calabaza' (meaning ‘squash’ in Spanish) gourd, through a metal straw called a bombilla that doubles up as a mate ‘masher’ to release flavour from the tea leaves. Once the leaves are packed together, one gourd can supply at least ten servings, and mate drinkers always have a thermos on hand to top up their calabaza with hot water.
Akin to a teapot of Tetley making its way around the office, the mate is then often shared around a group, with the person who owns the calabaza responsible for brewing and topping up. Everyone drinks from the same straw, because South Americans are cool like that.
A calabaza can be simple and plain or highly ornate, but whatever it looks like, you can pretty much guarantee that many South Americans have theirs on them at any given moment, as my sister, who spent a year working in Luis Suarez’s home city of Salto in Uruguay (on the Argentine border), confirms:
“Mate is a bit like coffee in Italy- many people can’t function before they’ve had their first of the day. Uruguayans will take their gourd and thermos everywhere- you see people preparing and drinking mate on the bus, at the doctor’s, on their doorsteps with friends, and they’ll share it around, drinking the gourd dry until they pass it on.
“Uruguayans tend to like it really strong and straight, whereas the Argentines often add honey, orange peel and other herbs. I discovered that people can be very particular about the way that the herbs are packed and mashed into the gourd too- everyone has their own specific style and preference for drinking mate. Each country also thinks that their take on mate is the best- the Uruguayans think that their mate is better than the Argentines, the Brazilians are snobby about the way that Uruguayans do it...and so on.”
Daniel adds that the mate drinking tradition has without doubt been watered down in Europe as it’s become more than a little hipster:
“Many people just buy it as a loose tea and prepare it in a French press. Some people like to consume it cold and it’s often sold as a cold drink in bottles, especially in Germany for some reason- it’s everywhere at the moment. In general it’s definitely a growing trend- we are seeing a lot of bottled teas in supermarkets in particular.”
Why athletes love mate
Mate doesn’t just facilitate team bonding- it could have tangible sporting benefits too, as Daniel explains:
“It can boost energy as it contains caffeine but it’s known not to have the jittery side effects that the likes of coffee does, so it can boost performance and make for a very calm, focused athlete.
“There is a body of research suggesting that it can help the body to burn fat, or rely on fat for fuel during exercise, and it’s very rich in antioxidants (more so than green tea), which can help in recovery.”
In addition, mate is hydrating (particularly when sipped consistently throughout the day as is habitual), which aids both concentration and physical performance, and drinkers typically don’t experience the energy crash that is so typical of coffee .
There are few drawbacks to supping on a mate, although if you have a sensitivity to caffeine you may want to go easy on the endless refills. Daniel also highlights that “it can interact with some medications for Parkinson’s disease and depression ( MAOI drugs ) so be mindful of that if consuming a lot of it when taking these medications.”
Otherwise, get the kettle on...
How to make mate
As with a nice mug of Yorkshire, water should be hot but not boiling (apparently 70ºC is the sweet spot). Cover the leaves with water, let them settle, mash them about a bit and top up as required. Get your mates in on the mate action for authenticity. Ditch it when the taste goes and repeat ad infinitum.