A hot water tap for making yerba mate at a petrol station in Southern Argentina... First published in July 2016 for The Bread Companion.
Like a good friend Argentina is a warm and generous place. It offers a lot. There are waterfalls and ranches and vineyards and glaciers and cities and lakes and snow and beaches. It's a place for the greedy traveller, who wants to do it all and eat it all. Aside from the excellent quality of what it does produce, Argentina's food culture also has much behind it symbolically, steeped in a little South American magic.
This magic comes, I think, from the presence of so much belief, not necessarily in religion, but in all the small things. Many Argentines I had the pleasure of meeting whilst on a 6 week trip through the country were full to the brim of idiosyncracies and rituals about everything, from the ratios of fernet to coca cola (an Italian digestif that tastes like Jagermeister and is drunk with ice and Coke), to how much sugar you should put in your mate. Food rituals permeate everyday life. Take Gnocchi Day (dia de noquis), for example. On the 29th of the month, many Argentinians place some money under a plate of gnocchi, to encourage prosperity during the month ahead. Gnocchi Day is a clue about the cultural influences on Argentina, the country is a mixture of colonising Spaniards and, later on, escaping post-WW2 Germans and Italians who found themselves on the wrong side of history. Throw in a dictatorial government and an ever fluctuating economy and you get a real need for some kind of comfort, the need to make wishes.
Something that is distinctly NOT European, however, is yerba mate (prounounced yer-bah matt-eh). Argentinians, some Brazilians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, a hand full of Bolivians and Southern Chileans can be found, at most times of day, toting a hot flask, mate cup, metal straw and a pack of yerba. There are even hot water dispensers in public places like petrol stations JUST INCASE you should find yourself with an empty mate gourd. With tea being one of the things that I miss most when I am out of the UK, mate very quickly became a replacement. A relative of the holly plant and first harvested by the Guarani tribe, mate is a green and bitter herb. It’s a bit like green tea on steroids, drunk by packing a gourd-shaped mug with dried herbs, filling it with hot water and sipping on a metal straw — you aren’t allowed to touch the straw with your hands. Once you’ve drained your gourd, refill the water and pass it to your neighbour. Mate, many explained to me, is about sharing ideas. When you drink it, you have to have a conversation, after all you’re drinking out of the same cup. It’s quite an intimate process and often leads to deep-and-meaningfuls, heated debates or revelations. In this respect, it’s a bit MORE than tea (I will probably be exiled from the UK for saying this). In the same way, drinking tea is about the process of making it, especially when it comes to making it for others (Do you take sugar? How milky? Bag in or out?) but tea can also be enjoyed alone, as a break or as a mode of procrastination, as well as with people. Mate, however is just no fun without the presence of others.
A great many things in Argentina are done in groups or in pairs, not because they need to be, but because of the gesture. It took me a while to realise that portion sizes in restaurants are very often for two. Bearing similarities to tapas or mezes, you don’t just go out for eating’s sake. You go out to enjoy your food with someone else, to try a bit of everybody else’s plate, for the shared experience. Birthdays are another cause for gestures, one of the most traditional forms of birthday cake being Choco Torta. Now, this cake is an assembly job that could give you a serious heart attack, a jenga-like layout of chocolate biscuits, dulce de leche, cream and milk. But. It can’t be bought. It HAS to be made. Yet again, the gesture of making it for someone is what gives it significance otherwise it is just another pile of sugar and milk.
During almost two months in Argentina, travelling from Iguassu to Patagonia, I found lots of delightful food. Of course I did! But, eating in this big country is mainly about companionship as well as taste. And it can be said in many ways that this is the way it is the world over. For cups of tea, a round of mate, a glass of something strong or making someone a cake all mean the same thing. When you offer someone these things you are also offering the equivalent of a pat on the back, a cuddle, a handshake or a little bit of courage to welcome them in or send them, happily, on their way.