A type of holly with a mild yet stimulating flavour
As universal as is the appeal of tea, there is always local competition to contend with – and I don’t mean the evil bean. You could say there are different turfs in the tea world, based on the favourite local infusions. Obviously, Asia is run by Mr. Tea. Roy “the Boss” Rooibos has got southern Africa locked down. And South America is under the spell of the mighty maté.
Maté (pronounced ma-tay)is a type of holly. The plant is native to Paraguay and was originally drunk during social rituals, being passed around in a communal gourd and drunk through a special bombilla, or straw. Brewed in the traditional way, dry green maté leaves contain more caffeine than tea.
Which reminds me of the time I was wandering in the remote uplands of Paraguay, hawking my tea bags to the forest people. By way of thanks, the local shaman blew some unusual smoke in my face that made me feel queasy and I’ll be damned if the nearest shrub didn’t begin speaking to me an hour later.
It said: “I am the spirit of Maté and you are on my turf, tea boy. Why don’t you pack up your tea bags and sail back to the Old World. You’ve got no business here.”
I told him that tea was very important business and that in any case I didn’t want to pay the extra baggage charge. At the time the logic was impeccable, beautiful even.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ll spell it out. I’m similar enough to tea, but I’ve got my own flavour – mild, a little bitter, a little aromatic – and I’ve got more anti-oxidants than your offerings too. Can you compete with that? My fame spread across this continent over a century ago and I’ve been the national drink in nearly every country ever since. They love me here, do you understand? Your withered leaves will never be more than a bit on the side to them. I am the Green Gold of the Indios, gringo. So be gone, because in this land I will always be the Drink of the Gods – and everybody else."
OK then. Sorry, mate.