About Maximapedia

Mate Tea

MATE TEA, or PARAGUAY TEA, the dried leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, [1] an evergreen shrub or small tree belonging to the same genus as the common holly, a plant to which it bears some resemblance in size and habit. The leaves are from 6 to 8 in. long, shortly stalked, with a somewhat acute tip and finely toothed at the margin. The small white flowers grow in forked clusters in the axils of the leaves; the sepals, petals and stamens are four in number, or occasionally five; and the berry is 4-seeded. The plant grows abundantly in Paraguay, and the south of Brazil, forming woods called yerbales. One of the principal centres of the maté industry is the Villa Real, a small town above Asuncion on the Paraguay river; another is the Villa de San Xavier, in the district between the rivers Uruguay and Parana.

Although maté appears to have been used from time immemorial by the Indians, the Jesuits were the first to attempt its cultivation. This was begun at their branch missions in Paraguay and the province of Rio Grande de San Pedro, where some plantations still exist, and yield the best tea that is made. From this circumstance the names Jesuits' tea, tea of the Missions, St Bartholomew's tea, etc., are sometimes applied to maté. Under cultivation the quality of the tea improves, but the plant remains a small shrub with numerous stems, instead of forming, as in the wild state, a tree with a rounded head. From cultivated plants the leaves are gathered every two or three years, that interval being necessary for restoration to vigorous growth. The collection of maté is, however, chiefly effected by Indians employed for that purpose by merchants, who pay a money consideration to government for the privilege.

When a yerbal or maté wood is found, the Indians, who usually travel in companies of about twenty-five in number, build wigwams and settle down to the work for about six months. Their first operation is to prepare an open space, called a talacua, about 6 ft. square, in which the surface of the soil is beaten hard and smooth with mallets. The leafy branches of the maté are then cut down and placed on the tatacua, where they undergo a preliminary roasting from a fire kindled around it. An arch of poles, or of hurdles, is then erected above it, on which the maté is placed, a fire being lighted underneath. This part of the process demands some care, since by it the leaves have to be rendered brittle enough to be easily pulverized, and the aroma has to be developed, the necessary amount of heat being only learned by experience. After drying, the leaves are reduced to coarse powder in mortars formed of pits in the earth well rammed. Mate so prepared is called caa gazu or yerva do polos, and is chiefly used in Brazil. In Paraguay and the vicinity of Parana in the Argentine Republic, the leaves are deprived of the midrib before roasting; this is called caa-miri. A very superior quality, or caa-cuys, is also prepared in Paraguay from the scarcely expanded buds. Another method of drying maté has been adopted, the leaves being heated in large cast-iron pans set in brickwork, in the same way that tea is dried in China ; it is afterwards powdered by machinery.

[1] I. gigantea, I. ovalifotia, I. Humtoldtiana, and I. nigropunctata, besides several varieties of these species, are also used for preparing maté.

Mate (Ilex paraguariensis): Portion of plant, half natural size. Flower, drupe and nuts, twice natural size. Part of under-side of leaf showing minute glands, natural size.

The different methods of preparation influence to a certain extent the value of the product, the maté prepared in Paraguay being considered the best, that of Oran and Paranagua very inferior. The leaves when dried are packed tightly in serons or oblong packages made of raw hides, which are then carefully sewed up. These shrink by exposure to the Sun, and in a couple of days form compact parcels each containing about 200 Ib of tea; in this form it keeps well. The tea is generally prepared for use in a small silver-mounted calabash, made of the fruit of Crescentia cujete (Cuca) or of Lagenaria (Cabaco), usually about the size of a large orange, the tapering end of the latter serving for a handle. In the top of the calabash, or malt? a circular hole about the size of a florin is made, and through this opening the tea is sucked by means of a bombilla. This instrument consists of a small tube 6 or 7 in. long, formed either of metal or a reed, which has at one end a bulb made either of extremely fine basket-work or of metal perforated with minute holes, so as to prevent the particles of the tea-leaves from being drawn up into the mouth. Some sugar and a little hot water are first placed in the gourd, the yerya is then added, and finally the vessel is filled to the brim with boiling water, or milk previously heated by a spirit lamp.

1 The word caa signified the plant in the native Indian language. The Spaniards gave it a similar name, yerba. Mate comes from the language of the Incus, and originally means a calabash. The Paraguay tea was called at first yerva do matt, and then, the yerva being dropped, the name malt came to signify the same thing.

A little burnt sugar or lemon juice is sometimes added instead of milk. The beverage is then handed round to the company, each person being furnished with a bombilla. The leaves will bear steeping about three times. The infusion, if not drunk soon after it is made, rapidly turns black. Persons who are fond of maté drink it before every meal, and consume about I oz. of the leaves per day. In the neighbourhood of Parana it is prepared and drunk like Chinese tea. Maté is generally considered disagreeable by those unaccustomed to it, having a somewhat bitter taste ; moreover, it is the custom to drink it so hot as to be unpleasant. But in the south-eastern republics it is a much-prized article of luxury, and is the first thing offered to visitors. The gaucho of the plains will travel on horseback for weeks asking no better fare than dried beef washed down with copious draughts of maté, and for it he will forego any other luxury, such as sugar, rice or biscuit. Maté acts as a restorative after great fatigue in the same manner as tea. Since it does not lose its flavour so quickly as tea by exposure to the air and damp it is more valuable to travellers.

Since the beginning of the 17th century maté has been drunk by all classes in Paraguay, and it is now used throughout Brazil and the neighbouring countries.

The virtues of this substance are due to the occurrence in it of caffeine, of which a given quantity of maté, as prepared for drinking, contains definitely less than a similar quantity of tea or coffee. It is less astringent than either of these, and thus is, on all scores, less open to objection.

See Scully, Brazil (London, 1866); Mansfield, Brazil (London, 1856); Christy, New Commercial Plants, No. 3 (London, 1880); Kew Bulletin (1892), p. 132.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | GDPR