It’s Mate Time in East Tennessee!

One of my favorite things about my trip to Chile and Argentina was to learn about the mate tea tradition. In fact, I’m enjoying a mate at this very minute while I write. To make sure we’re on the same page, you first have to know how to pronounce it. Mate is pronounced “mah-tay” with two syllables as if there is an accent on the letter e.

Next, it is important to know I am an unabashed snob when it comes to caffeinated beverages, most notably espresso drinks. I don’t claim to be a world-class expert, but I’ve invested many hours learning to make, locate, and appreciate finely-crafted espresso drinks (mostly cappuccino and macchiato). A buddy of mine once noted that “I understand espresso on a molecular level,” which made me feel good to know that I have deceived others into thinking that. Regardless, I truly love freshly-ground beans, the perfect amount of steamed milk and some foam with the perfect consistency. For my taste, you can’t beat that magic combination so I often travel with my espresso machine in the back of my 4Runner!

However, I’m not a one-trick pony when it comes to caffeine. I’m willing to explore other options, especially when comes to regional artisanal sources of my favorite stimulant. My curiosity was roused when I first read about mate more than a year ago. Then, as the date of the trip approached and I further explored the online world of mate, I was quite intrigued to try it while I was gone. And enjoy it I did!

Mate is made from dried leaves in a similar fashion as hot tea. To prepare a mate, the leaves are added to a dried gourd and the fine powder portion is separated by covering the gourd opening with your hand, inverting the gourd, and gently tamping it so the fine powder separates from the ground leaves. The next step is to carefully turn the gourd right side up and then insert a metal straw (called a bombilla) into the herb (or yerba in Spanish). The bombilla has a spring at the bottom, which filters out the particulate matter when you sip the mate. The final step is the addition of hot water at just the right temperature to extract the flavor from the yerba. The best temperature is a matter of personal taste, but most of the mate drinkers I met used water that was about 70 to 80 degrees Centigrade. The mate is initially bitter tasting, but after a couple of infusions with hot water, the flavor mellows and begins to resemble green tea. At that stage, the mate is quite enjoyable and it is possible to infuse the yerba many times with hot water.

I love the technical aspects of mate, but the best part is the tradition associated with it. Importantly, mate is a social event with all the participants sharing the same bombilla. I know of no similar tradition in my culture where people pass around a drink to share with a straw. Sure, it may happen that one occasionally takes a sip from the straw of a friend, but I’ve never seen people at Starbucks pass a frappuccino around a circle for everyone to sip. Mate time is unique. I loved it!

There is an elaborate etiquette to sharing a mate. The person who prepares the mate in the first place is called the cebador. The cebador is responsible for drinking the strong brew at the beginning of the mate cycle, that way others may imbibe the smooth drink after a couple of brewing cycles. Only the cebador is allowed to touch the bombilla. That was the first item of etiquette I learned! I personally found the mate tradition quite intriguing. It is a great way to start the day or share some time with friends in the afternoon. Let me know if you’re in the area and would like to share one!

The attached image has nothing to do with mate. It is a scene that unfolded before me at the very end of the trip. We were staying in hotel with a wonderful view of Paine Grande, the Cuernos, and the entire massif that defines Torres del Paine. We were all running around taking care of our smelly laundry, cleaning our smelly bodies, and beginning the packing process for our return home. Off in the distance, clouds and shafts of light beams danced among the granite peaks. The clouds moved across the massif and the light beams came and went. I was captivated. I lived with a smelly body a little longer while a watched the evolving light from the second floor of the hotel.

The processing of this image has some different traditions for me. The high contrast black and white was inspired by a chat with a photographer I met on my flight home a couple of days later. He is a well-known B&W photographer named Jack Curran. Some of my friends in St. Louis know him well, but if his name is new to you, I encourage you to look him up. You’ll be happy you did. It was nice meeting him and I walked away from our time together thinking that there was a B&W image in my future. This is it. Hope you like it. This image is intentionally dark, so you may to brighten your display for the full impact. Let me know what you think!

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