Drinking out of a Cow’s Hoof? You’re Crazy! A Brief History of My Life with Yerba Mate

New country, same tradition

Mate has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even when they migrated to the United States in the mid-80s, my parents never departed from the tradition. To their luck, the yerba they drank back home was very much available in the Greater Boston area, and today there is a much wider variety than 20 years ago.

I always remember seeing my parents, and family members, enjoying mate whether it be during breakfast, after lunch, at family gathering and even on road trips we would take. Growing up in America with Uruguayan parents gave me the unique experience of not only learning another language and culture, but also aspiring to truly be a part of it. Due to immigration, many families let go of certain traditions simply because they are far away from home. In this sense, my parents did the opposite, and instead, they instilled in my siblings and me all the customs they had as children to the greatest extent possible.

Delicious, delicious Yerba Mate
Delicious, delicious Yerba Mate

From mate dulce to mate amargo

I was around 5 years old when I first tried mate. My parents had it with sugar and perhaps an orange or lemon peel, so I enjoyed it. It was a sweet drink and, as a kid, who doesn’t like a sugary drink? Years would go by until I tried it again, as a teenager. When I tried it again, I drank it without sugar or any other flavors, it was simply yerba and water. Truth be told, I certainly wasn’t a fan of the strong and bitter taste it has, so, at that time, I decided to only drink mate with added sugar. Note that the actual gourds that you drink from are different depending on if you have it with sugar or not. Typically, drinking mate with sugar happens with a glass cup. However, if one has it straight amargo (bitter), it’s experienced through an actual natural gourd (calabaza), so the yerba can be better absorbed and the cup won’t have any added substances seeping into it, potentially altering the taste of future sessions.

After a few years of only being able to drink mate with sugar, I decided to give the mate amargo a second try. This time, it was my brother who offered one to me. At that moment, I realized not only how the preparation, but serving process, has a lot to do with the taste. From that point on, it was a learning process in terms of being able to prepare and be the one to serve the drink if more people were around. It was after trying it for this second time that I had an entirely new experience and could proudly call myself on team mate amargo (bitter mate). I now drink it bitter because I can appreciate the actual yerba a lot more and not have to worry about adding any sugar or other ingredients, which dilute the natural taste mate offers.

For those who love Yerba Mate, you can’t go anywhere without your tools
For those who love Yerba Mate, you can’t go anywhere without your tools

A baffling cow’s foot of mate

I remember once, during high school, I brought my thermos and mate with me for a presentation we had to do in which we discussed all the different cultures represented in our class. Friends and teachers gathered and watched as I prepared the drink. They asked me a ton of questions, like why and how I drank it, what it contained and where they could buy it. It was one of the funniest presentations anyone in the class gave, because people were shocked at the cup I brought with me, which was actually a cow’s foot hollowed out and carved to be appropriate for drinking mate out of. People were baffled, taking photos and asking questions about the cup, as well as wanting to try some. In the end, being able to introduce a completely new product and beverage to an audience whom had never seen or heard of it before was a great experience. Nowadays, it is quite common to see mate wherever there are Uruguayans or Argentineans living, whether it be local stores or even chain markets selling like, like over here in Spain.

A cow’s hoof worth of Yerba Mate
A cow’s hoof worth of Yerba Mate

Yerba Mate’s international growth in popularity

To me, mate is more than a beverage. It is a lifelong tradition passed on from one generation to another, identifying a people and giving us an excuse to go over to a friend or family member’s house, bringing people closer together. Mate is more than a simple tea; it creates memories, tells stories and helps loved ones shares a few laughs. It is something I will one day pass on to my own children, knowing they will do the same with theirs.

Today, mate crosses international borders, and many people who are not from the Southern Cone of South America consume it. It’s almost a certainty that mate will grow in popularity, increase in volume and be recognized on an international level as more and more people become interested in the drink. I have never lived in an area where I wasn’t able to find yerba. Apart from living in the U.S., where it is found almost everywhere, and in Uruguay where you can even buy one serving’s worth, I was also able to find it in Auckland, New Zealand at a whopping 18 dollars per kilo, in Sydney, Australian and also here in Barcelona, where I found it to be the cheapest outside of Uruguay.

It is more than beverage; it is a cultural pillar of the Uruguayan people.

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