Mate is a drink (and sometimes an obsession) that literally stimulates Argentineans. Some sip it all day, enjoying the caffeine and other stimulants in the brew. Others savor it as a link to Argentina's gaucho past. It's a rare tourist who doesn't come home with a mate gourd or cup.
The "good herb" is packed into a gourd or other drinking vessel, not quite boiling water is poured in until the leaves are saturated and then it is drunk from a filter/straw called a bombilla.
Then, more warm water is poured in and the mate cup and straw is passed to the next person. Mate drinking is a very social experience.
The basic mate flavor is slightly bitter and herbal, but flavored (lemon or citrus is a favorite) mate is available as is pre-sweetened. One visitor at the Museum of Mate in Tigre told us her favorite type of mate as a child was "burnt sugar," made by first putting in the sugar and then adding and removing a hot coal. The hot coal caramelized the sugar flavoring the mate drink.
All over Buenos Aires I saw people of all ages carrying a mate gourd in one hand and toting a thermos strapped to them for refilling their cup with warm water.
The Museum of Mate (or actually the Museo de Mate) is at Lavalle 289 in Tigre, less than an hour train ride from downtown Buenos Aires. I couldn't find a web page, but the phone number in Argentina is 4506-9594. I'll update this when I find the url. While the small museum and its collection of mate paraphernalia is charming, the tours and signage are all in Spanish. Luckily, there were other visitors who were able to translate for us. The highlight was sitting in the courtyard and participating in the mate drinking workshop. (I know it was probably bad form but I just had to do a sneaky wipe of the bombilla when I was passed the gourd. I still shudder at the chance I took -- germs from strangers! Oh no!)
Here in the U.S, I've spotted some of the Argentinean brands of mate (or yerba mate) in Latin American grocery stores. There is also an excellent company that imports mate and also offers in a more Americanized format -- in tea bags. I met one of the owners of the company at the Fancy Food Show and was impressed with the product and the company behind it -- Guayaki Yerba Mate. The website also has detailed instructions on how to prepare the drink.
Buenos Aires Tourist Tip: See this post for more info on my time in Tigre. There is also an art museum and a naval museum to explore, but most visitors are there to spend the day on the river. Shop around for your mate cup, you see the "usual" gourd and or wood and leather ones in many venues. I bought a gourd and resin beauty at the San Telemo street fair. I bought my mate at a local grocery store at a big savings from purchasing it at the souvenir and crafts places. I also found very inexpensive mate cups there as well. The oddest mate cup I saw was made of white ceramic with the words I love my grandma in your choice of Hebrew or Englishized Yiddish.