Updated on December 19, 2014
So What do I Need for Some Delicious Yerba Maté?
Yerba maté is probably the most common food item that anyone will see in Uruguay. It seems that all Uruguayans walk around with either their maté in one hand and termo under the other arm or their matera, a normally leather bag that holds the termo, maté and yerba.
Because maté is the national beverage of Uruguay, and tons of people throughout the southern cone of South America drink it as well, there are many different ways to prepare maté. This means that you can finally find the perfect way to enjoy maté but first you must get through the myriads of options.
1. Finding your vessel. Yerba maté is traditionally prepared in a gourd, specifically a porongo gourd. These gourds almost completely round, some have flat bottoms, others require wire stands, some flip open at the top, and others have a very little hole on the top are only a few of the many, many varieties that one has to choose from.
There are currently two very popular varieties of gourds that Sand and I saw used in Uruguay. The first is a Brazilian type of gourd that curves out at the top, so that it can hold more yerba, the body is fairly large, and the bottom of it is sometimes made into a stand. (For the most part if a gourd cannot stand on its own it also has a stand of some sort.) The Brazilian type of gourd is good because it can hold more yerba, so it would only need to be filled once a day. I always felt as if the yerba was about to all fall out, but that is probably my clumsy side talking. The other popular variety is a gourd with a rounded top that is covered in leather. These are very nice looking gourds, and normally more expensive, but the leather is a great insulator and almost always made into a stand as well.
My gourd is a little plain one that stands on its own, is open but not curved out at the top and the outside is carved. The maté Sand has was a gift from our friend Ricardo and is wrapped in maroon leather with a metal ring around the top and sturdy bottom (shown above).
2. Just as important as the gourd is the bombilla; this is the metal straw through which the tea is filtered. Today, most of the bombillas used are metal but traditionally they were made of reeds. There are two types of bombillas that are most commonly used; one has a spoon-type end with holes in it while the other filters the yerba through a straw.
The spoon shaped bombillas are great because they easily pack the yerba onto the side of the gourd (where it should stand so that the yerba is not wet all at the same time) and supports the wall of yerba. The downside to the spoon type of bombillas is that the holes may be a bit larger than one would hope and sometimes yerba can be sucked through the straw.
The bombillas that filter through a spring do not have the problem of occasionally sucking yerba through the straw, which is definitely a benefit. But, these bombillas more often have problems because of the spring. It breaks much more easily and more often than the spoon shaped bombillas and because the space through which the water is filtered is much smaller than the spoon shaped bombillas the straw more readily gets clogged.
3. The type of yerba is by far the most important part of this wonderful beverage. The varieties of yerba that one can purchase are endless and because neither Sand nor I have come anywhere close to trying all the different brands I think a small glossary would be best.
- Sin Paulo: This means “without stem,” which results in a stronger flavor of yerba. Most brands tend to have a regular version (which would probably be with stems but not say con Paulo) and a sin Paulo version. The only brand that I am aware of that does not have this option is Canarias (Sand’s favorite). Canarias comes only sin paulo and is therefore one of the strongest varieties.
- Elaborada: This generally means an elaborate, or rich flavor will result from this yerba. This yerba will be very flavorful and have a rich, complex taste.
- Smokiness varies according to brand. There is not really a certain adjective commonly used to elaborate upon the amount of smokiness although the sin Paulo varieties will be smokier than the regular varieties.
- Although maté is great plain, there are also many varieties that mix other plants into the yerba. I once bought a bag that was con menta, or with mint leaves in it as well as yerba. Also available are brands with types of citrus included in the dried yerba, although I don’t really recommend buying these varieties. With my yerba con menta I found that the mint was really overpowering and I would have preferred to add the mint on my own. I think it’s a much better idea to buy the plain type of yerba and then experiment with adding different herbs and flavors into the mixture.
4. Just as gourds come in more styles than I could ever imagine, materas are just as varied. The most common materas are made of leather or plastic that is made to look like leather (although this is only common in very touristy areas). Materas are also made of fabric that is so tightly woven that it is almost as stiff as the leather used for the other style.
Materas are very common, especially throughout Uruguay but they are not the only option for maté on the road. Many Uruguayans simply carry their maté and termo tucked under one arm and walk through the streets or drive while sipping it; although if you plan on drinking maté in America it may be a good idea to invest in a matera as less people will stare and stop you to ask what you are drinking.
Now that you are aware of the many different tools that can be used for making maté, you are all set to begin preparing this wonderful beverage. Sand has a great post on how to properly prepare maté, so I won’t steal his thunder but wish anyone trying it for the first time the best of luck because yerba maté is a wonderfully delicious and healthy tea.