What’s The Mate?

For a very laid back and friendly nation, Uruguayans have quite a few obsessions. Like the other areas of South America with a strong connection to the gaucho culture, (most notably Argentina and Paraguay) agriculture, and in particular the production and consumption of meat, is both economically and culturally fundamental in Uruguay. In Montevideo, and we expect more of the same in Buenos Aires, a visit to a parrilla means witnessing fire-breathing grills, sweaty machismo men prodding at huge chunks of meat and offal, and a barbecue that looks like a more appetizing version of the aftermath of the execution of a particularly traitorous Tudor subject. After feasting on sweetbreads, rib steaks, sausages and any part of the cow you care to try, the only sensible option is to return home and digest it all in front of the Agriculture Channel on cable TV. No kidding. Maybe you can even buy your own cow inĀ  one of their live auctions.

Parrilla in the mercardo del Puerto, Montevideo. Not a job for girls.

For those of us not from South America however, a far less well-known heritage of the gaucho tradition can be seen on virtually every street and home in Uruguay, at all times. No, it’s not a funny hat or big boots with spurs. No, it turns out that those cowboys, and now almost every Uruguayan, like nothing more than a nice cup of tea. To be precise, the beverage in question is called mate (pronounced mat-ay) and is a complicated and important enough affair to require a significant amount of parrafinalia and etiquette. The leaves, tea-like but in truth dried leaves of a species of holly, are parranged in a gourd, infused with hot water from a flask and drunk through a stainless steel straw. Often this is shared around, and topped up so that it lasts for hours. Thus, on the streets of Uruguay and Argentina, and particularly in Montevideo, people of all ages, from all walks of life can be seen doing all types of things whilst at all times clutching their mate gourd in one hand and with their flask tucked under their arm. More enthusiastic mate drinkers invest further in leather carry cases and luxury flasks to cart around wherever they go. It’s a bit like being English and carrying a teapot around all day, but it’s a charming and fascinating habit for the uninitiated to observe.

A couple enjoy a mate in central Montevideo.

We enjoyed Montevideo and Uruguay during our short stay. We wanted to eat lots, and we saw lots of great photo opportunities (click here to see Helen’s choice shots). Above all though, we found the people to be charming, friendly and welcoming. En route to the ferry to Buenos Aires, we stopped for a night in Colonia de Sacremento, a charming and rather quaint historical town with a hisory of smuggling and Portuguese-Spanish colonial rivallry. Photo opportunities were again plentyful here, so grab a mate and have a butchers…



One Comment to “What’s The Mate?”

  • A parrilla makes Subway look a bit tame!
    Like the car under the purple tree!….would have made a good wedding car!