A few months ago I was standing at the counter of Chaco Canyon, a favorite local cafe, and I guess I was staring over-long at the tea menu because the barista took matters into her own hands and said, “I think you should try mate. Put a little honey or agave in it. You’ll like it.” Why not? I’d heard of yerba mate, but hadn’t read anything of its touted benefits. I was already overloaded with the glorification of acai berries, raspberry keytones, mulberry, and hemp milk in the health news arena. Who can keep track of everything? But I love tea, and was game to try something new. I added the recommended drop of agave, and sat down with my laptop to get some work done.
The tea was fine. Not delicious, but perfectly drinkable. As I sipped it over the course of an hour, I noticed I was feeling a nice little pick-me-up. It wasn’t the direct caffeine injection that coffee brings. I love my morning cup of java, but I just can’t drink coffee throughout the day like I could in my wanton youth. Afternoon coffee these days makes my jittery, and sometimes even a little nauseous. The mate seemed to offer the benefits of caffeine, but in a slow-release fashion–an easy, pleasant, stream-like movement from a draggy mood to a feeling of brightness. I came back every afternoon that week for a cup of mate and tracked my experience: the tea made me feel more alert, more able to focus on my work, and ever-so-slightly euphoric. It also seemed to balance my blood sugar: at 3:00, when I am usually ready for a salty-yummy snack, I didn’t feel like I needed anything at all.
After that week, I bought my own bag of yerba mate to brew up at home, and Googled the herb to see what I could learn. I was impressed to see that many of the tea’s reported benefits were exactly those I experienced, including enhanced mental focus, balanced blood sugar, and the regulation of metabolism. It’s also believed to aid digestion, support cardiovascular health, increase physical endurance, and reduce post workout recovery time.
The cultural aspects of the tea are lovely. In Argentina it’s the daily brew, the unifying cup, available to all, loved by all. This prayer to Our Lady of Good Mate, an image long beloved by the people (and given the Apostolic Blessing by Pope John Paul II in 1993) sums up the herb’s healing grace: “Teach us to drink mate . . . that mate may be good news, a song of friendship, a way of loving and giving life.”
The drink was thrust onto the national stage recently when Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez visited Pope Francis in Rome. For years the two lived walking-distance from each other in Buenos Aires, but Fernandez avoided then-Cardinal Bergolio, who opposed much of her progressive social agenda. Faced with a country that was suddenly jumping with joy and pride over Bergolio’s election to the papacy, Fernandez appears to have adopted a practical “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, and accepted Francis’s invitation to his papal installation, and then his personal invitation to lunch. There she presented him with a traditional mate set–an embellished gourd with a curving metal straw–along with a canister of the herb from Francis’s native land. She and the pope (who traditionally does not eat or drink anything but eucharistic bread and wine in public) were photographed sharing a gourd of yerba mate.
To make a good cup of mate: Brew as any tea, but add the water just before it boils. Honey, agave, sugar, and milk are all acceptable enhancements.
Experience with yerba mate? Received any favors from Our Lady of Good Mate? I’d love to hear your stories.