Learning about Mate and Uruguay

By Sandra Scott

 


Uruguay is very tourist friendly and tranquil. You won’t see Uruguayans rushing around with a Starbucks coffee cup clutched in their hands. They may not have a coffee cup but they all seem to be sipping something from a unique cup. I wondered what they were drinking. While I was in Argentina I saw two ladies sitting in a plaza sipping something from a silver straw. I summoned enough nerve to ask what they were drinking. “Mate,” she said offering me a sip from her cup.  Which I thought was extremely friendly but declined. Mate - what’s that? For me learning about mate was like taking a trip – one step at a time.

In Uruguay and Argentina sipping mate is a phenomenon as big as drinking coffee in the U.S. My curiosity continued when I saw people in both Uruguay and Argentina carrying around a leather case that, at first, I thought was an over-sized binocular case. It wasn’t until I was souvenir shopping that I realized the leather case, the fancy silver-rimmed gourd cup, and the silver straw were all part of the mate experience. But my limited fluency in Spanish kept me from getting the whole story until we arrived at La Paz, in Uruguay.

It was luck that brought us to Estancia La Paz. John and I were returning to Colonia after a week at one of Uruguay’s thermals. We wanted to stay at an Uruguayan ranch called an estancia but they were all booked including Estancia La Paz.  Near Paysandu, I saw a arrow indicating, “Estancia La Paz – 5 km.”

“Let’s check it out. We have time,” I suggested.   So off we went down the unpaved road.  As we pulled into the estancia vehicles were pulling out.  What luck!  Now there was a vacancy!

The estancia started by Richard B. Hughes, an Englishman, who bought the land in 1857. In the 20th century another immigrant—this time Pierre Wyaux from Belgium—bought it from  Hughes’ heirs. Estancia La Paz is a family-run ranch that raises sheep and Charlevoix cattle, and was the first of Uruguay’s many guest ranches.

Today Anne Wyaux and her family, descendents of Pierre Wyaux run the property. Estancia La Paz is a serene place where the rest of the world has no real relevance.  We watched gauchos round up the sheep, talked to the dogs, read, relaxed, and marveled at the sunsets. Anne’s son, Alexis Bourgeois, speaks excellent English so we asked, “Do you drink mate?”

He laughed and replied, “Of course, we all do.”

“Well, what is it all about?” I asked.

Alexis brought out all his paraphernalia – the leather case, his mate cups, a silver straw with a spoon-like part at the end, and a thermos with water.  The mate cup is made from a gourd and usually trimmed in silver.  He explained how to brew mate.

  1. Fill 2/3 parts the cup with the dried and grated yerba leaves, a species of holly.

  2. Cover the cup with the palm of your hand, turn it over, and shake it a few seconds. After shaking, the smallest pieces of the Yerba leaves come to the top. This keeps the straw from being obstructed.

  3. Pour a small amount of lukewarm water down the side of the mate cup.

  4. The straw is introduced in that spot so that the spoon-like end touches the bottom of the mate cup.

  5. Then fill the cup with hot water. Then sipped it is sipped by the drinker before being passed to friends

“Drinking mate is an excuse for Uruguayans to get together to chat,” Alex said. There is etiquette that goes with drinking mate. The small sipping noises made when the liquid is nearly gone is the signal to pass it back to the host to add more water. To make more than three sipping noises is considered rude. And a guest drinker never adds water to the cup or stirs it.  The preparation is all at the hands of the host.

We left Uruguay feeling we had done it all. We visited the upscale Punta del Este, strolled the streets of historic Colonia, soaked in the thermal waters near Salto, stayed on an Estancia, and learned about mate!

Visit www.estancialapaz.com.uy.

   

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