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Guayakí Yerba Mate - A Powerful Rainforest Experience

Buzz in the Press
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Buzz in the Press

Buzz in the Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The best polo players in the world hail from Argentina. On large family horse farms, they learn to ride before they can walk, and soon thereafter they learn the game with all its passion and tradition.

And morning, noon and night, before and after practices, before and after games, before and after dinner and before and after a tango, they will sit down with friends -- and even on-field foes -- for a round of yerba mate.

Mate (pronounced MAH-teh) is the beverage of choice, not only in Argentina, but also in Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil -- and anywhere in America where people from those places live.

It is sold in loose packs, in tea bags and as soft drinks, straight and in blends with the likes of chai and other teas, at Hispanic mercados, gourmet shops and organic markets. (In Charlotte, it's available in many Latin American stores, including Coisas do Brasil, 10915 Monroe Road, as well as health-focused stores such as Berrybrook Farms and Talley's Green Grocery on East Boulevard.)

"Yerba" is the Spanish word for "herb"; "mate," from the Quechua language of the Andes, refers to the gourd in which the drink is made and consumed. The drink, also called mate, is brewed from the leaves and stems of a native tree, Ilex paraguarensis, a member of the holly family.

The mate can be a real gourd, hollowed wood or fancy silver often decorated with painted, carved or hammered geometric designs. About the size of a baseball, the gourd is filled about two-thirds to three-quarters with the mix and then filled with hot water. After a brief time for steeping, the mate is passed quietly among the group. They sip it through a gold-tipped metal straw known as a bombilla, which has a strainer at the bottom so the drinker doesn't choke on the herb.

In Argentina, as children are weaned off breast milk, they are introduced to mate.

"My niece is a year and a half and she drinks mate -- and she's brilliant," Buenos Aires-born Gloria Giudici, a hostess at Amici restaurant in Palm Beach, says with a laugh. "It's for all the ages. The people who drink mate are very strong but calm; you can drink it for hours."

And many do. In fact, 92 percent of Argentines drink mate and many take a thermos of hot water to work and drink it continuously. Ten to 12 gourdfuls can be brewed from a single measure of the herb, which yields a cornucopia of beneficial ingredients.

According to the Web site for Guayaki Yerba Mate, a brand sold at organic markets, yerba mate contains 196 active compounds, including 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and 11 polyphenols -- powerful antioxidants. It is high in chlorophyll and has a higher antioxidant count than green or black teas. It boosts energy with a combination of xanthine alkaloids: caffeine, theophylline and theobromine.

Though many claims are unproven, advocates tout it as a diuretic, as a digestive aid and as a stimulant. The additional nutrients supposedly minimize the nervousness and jitters associated with other caffeinated drinks such as coffee and colas. Other claims: memory aid, improved ability to focus on tasks, and a pleasant (and legal) buzz.

In its raw form, it tastes bitter and earthy. Some drinkers add fruit flavorings, lemon juice, honey, even cayenne pepper. Giudici prefers a small spoon of sugar.

"It's very good and very healthy," she said. "In Argentina, they drink it instead of water. Now in Buenos Aires, some restaurants serve mate from 3 to 5 in the afternoon, with biscottis. It's the new coffee break!

"But it's also drunk ceremonially, with friends. You share it with a lot of people. I think people in Argentina are living better than they do here. They enjoy life very much there."