Coffee, Mate

May 15th 2010: Travel

(second chapter of the Guilty Pleasure Tales)

No, no. The comma in the title is on purpose, not a typo. I don’t want to talk about that artificial creamer office managers buy in bulk and that, because barely anyone uses it, fills up cabinets over cabinets in the shared kitchen. And yes, we are still in Argentina, not Australia. After dealing with smoking, I want to dive into the much more pleasurable Argentinean vices centered around caffeine. There are two you should really be familiar with, that you will be exposed to within the first few hours after entering Buenos Aires: Coffee and Mate.


Argentineans have a wonderful coffee culture. There are cafes at every street corner. I heard a number quoted somewhere: 8,000 cafes in Capital Federal, the heart of Buenos Aires, alone. These cafes are open at all hours of the day, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. And not only do they serve coffee, but a range of bistro like foods, from croisants to sandwiches to pizza to sweet deserts, every cafe has them. Did I mention you can sit outside and enjoy the sun?

But it’s the coffee you want. Just like their Italian ancestors Argentineans do not know what drip-coffee is. And would be appalled if they did. All coffee is always espresso. No exceptions. You order a cafe and you get an espresso in a small ceramic cup. The most common coffee is the cortado, an espresso with a drop of milk. My favorite though is cafe con leche, a milk coffee or cafe au lait, but done with espresso instead of drip, so you’ll get it in a smaller cup rather than the gigantic coffee house mug so popular in US coffee houses. But it’s not just the coffee, it’s the whole coffee culture that one comes to love and appreciate quickly.

With every coffee you get a small glass of water to counter the coffee’s dehydrating affects and a sweet little biscuit or chocolate against the bitterness of the coffee. Further, coffee “to go” is virtually unknown. When you order a coffee para llevar you will find your barista scramble to find those styrofoam to-go-cups they stocked up on some years ago. Probably one of the reasons Starbucks is not doing so well here. Instead you sit down and enjoy your coffee for a few minutes. I mean seriously, how long does it take you down an espresso? No matter how busy you are, you should have those five minutes to enjoy the coffee from a real mug rather than a flimsy paper cup, don’t you think? Adding it all up, take the ten or twenty or thirty minutes you take to enjoy your coffee, the glass of water, the little sweets, and the excellent espresso in that real ceramic cup, and you have yourself a really wonderful coffee experience. And it’s everywhere. A cafe at every street corner. When returning to the land of Peet’s and Starbucks, this will be one of things I’ll miss most about Buenos Aires, for sure. (A tear running down my cheek as I sit in my favorite cafe over my cafe con leche, writing this – did I mention *all* cafes have free wifi?)


The other way to get your caffeine fix in Argentina is Mate. In a way it’s the opposite to coffee and the coffee culture. You cannot order it in any cafe or bar. Yet it is all around you. All the time. Together with Tango it is one of the biggest, clearest Argentinean staples. Other nearby countries, like Uruguay, are also big Mate addicts, but Argentineans seem to be particular hung up on the stuff.

But what exactly is Mate?

Mate is an obsession. Mate is addictive. Mate is closest to bitter green tea. The taste is somewhat nondescript, somewhere between green tea, hay, and tabacco maybe? The essential pieces are dried yerba mate leaves, a gourd made from a pumpkin or something – though I have seen stylish metal ones, too -, a silver straw called bombilla with a filter at the bottom preventing small particles to enter, and a thermos with almost boiling hot water. The gourd is filled with a *lot* of yerba mate leaves, then hot water is slowly filled from the sides. It is drunk with a little bit of sugar to please the Argentinean sweet tooth. Making good mate is an art to itself which is why none of the cafes bother to offer it. As a result Argentineans walk around everywhere with their mate gourd and their thermos. And the hot water is accessible almost anywhere: cafes, air planes, and gas stations all refill your thermos, no questions asked. The gas stations are actually required to fill them at no cost to keep the long distance truck drivers awake. The cup is often refilled and usually shared, passed around between friends and family, like a joint. When you go to a park, half of the people on the grass will be sipping their Mate. When you go to a market, all the vendors will sit behind their little table with a thermos and gourd. Even in clubs at 3am in the morning you will see people sipping the green stuff while showing off their moves on the dance floor.

It’s curious how coffee and Mate live right along each other, both prospering. However, think of coffee as the eating-out experience and Mate as the home-cooked meal and it makes more sense. Different ways, different settings, to supply you with your daily energy jolt. It’s nice to have options.

Because a ready-to-drink cup of Mate is not available to purchase in any cafe, I only got into Mate a few weeks ago, when hiking the glaciers. My friends and I decided it would be fitting to drink hot Mate while on Patagonian glacier ice. So there I was, carrying a gourd filled with yerba mate, the straw, and a blazing red thermos up and down the glacier. I mean, a really big, bright red thermos. Did I not have anything better to do? You feel kinda silly caring a big thermos around. But then, realizing that you are not the only one – though on the glacier I was, – you recognize that have come one step closer to understanding what makes the Argentineans tick in their own, funny way, and you feel a lot less ridiculous. You might even come to like it. So don’t be concerned if you see me wandering the streets, thermos in one hand, an odd leather cup in the other. Ask for a sip instead!

(If you want to experience Mate, the easiest way is to spend about $20 on a gourd, a thermos, and the yerba mate leaves, all of which are available at every supermarket, and brew it yourself. Don’t forget to cure the gourd first though: see here for instructions: How to cure Yerba Mate gourd.)

Posted in Travel by Ernst Bruening on May 15th, 2010 at 3:22 pm.

Previous Post:   Next Post: