The Gaucho Diet

As anyone who has been to Argentina will attest, the Argentines freaking love their yerba mate. So it should come as no surprise that they put it on their money. The average Argentine consumes 11 pounds of yerba mate per year. For comparison, the average American consumes only 9 pounds of coffee per year.

Argentina 10 Peso banknote.

On its new 10 peso banknote, Argentines have included some laurels that look a heck of a lot like the yerba mate plant, hence the purpose of this post (and the leaves on our Peso Blanket).

Pope Francis with yerba mate.

El Papa rocking the mate like a true Argentine. [Casa Crews]

For those not already drinking the Mat-Aid, yerba mate is a species of plant in the holly family that is indigenous to Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. It begins life as a shrub and matures into a tree with red berries and green leaves that are highly caffeinated (at around the same concentration as coffee).

Yerba mate plant.

Meet Ilex paraguariensis 

[Köhler's Medicinal Plants]

For centuries it's been consumed in South America as a vitamin- and antioxidant-rich caffeinated tea, traditionally served piping hot in a small gourd cup with a metal filtered straw (bombilla).

Yerba mate bombilla.


♫  You put the tea in the mate-cup, you drink 'em bot' up  ♫ 

[Sindicato del Mate]

The Guaraní & The Spaniards

The early history of yerba mate as a stimulant and tea is somewhat murky prior to Spanish colonization. What is known is that the natural distribution area of wild yerba mate covers southeastern Paraguay to southwestern Brazil and the northern tip of Argentina.

The indigenous peoples of the area, the Guaraní, used the plant—which they called "caá porã" or "beautiful plant"—for medicinal purposes and may have traded it as a luxury good to other pre-Colombian civilizations.

In fact the name yerba mate translates to "mate herb" in Spanish, with the mate part having come from the Quechua word mati, which has multiple meanings including "container for a drink", "infusion of an herb", and "gourd." Quechua, the primary language of the ancient Inca, is a language comes from the other side of the continent, suggesting a robust trade network.

Guarani drinking yerba mate.

Guaraní legend has it that the plant was gifted to them by the Goddesses of the Moon and Cloud as a drink of friendship.

[Pau Navajas / Caá Porã, El espíritu de la Yerba Mate]

In 1537 the Spanish founded the colony of Asunción (now the capital of Paraguay) on lands that had been Guaraní territory. The settlement was one of the first in South America (garnering the city's nickname "The Mother of Cities") and the Spaniards were soon sipping the silver straw.

It was alleged that Spanish settlers became so addicted that they sold off all their possessions and fell into debt in order to feed their habit, though there's reason to suspect that this claim was part of a political campaign to suppress Guaraní culture.

Spaniards drinking yerba mate.

"The vice and bad habit of drinking yerba has spread so much among the Spaniards, their women and children, that unlike the Indians that are content to drink it once a day they drink it continuously and those who do not drink it are very rare."  –  Governor Hernando Arias de Saavedra, 1596

By the beginning of the 17th century, yerba mate had become the number one export of the Guaraní territories, out pacing sugar, wine, and tobacco, much to the consternation of the moralizing governor of the territory, Hernando Arias de Saavedra (aka Hernandarias)—incidentally the first person born in the Americas to become governor of a European colony in the New World—who attempted to shut down the burgeoning industry. 

Never ones to look a colonial gift horse in the mouth, the Spanish Crown rejected Hernandarias' requested yer-ban, and production (and consumption) continued apace.

Hernando Arias de Saavedra.

This guy is making a frown in every painting, probably could've used some mate.

The Jesuits

The next critical step in mate's journey to your health food store occurred when the Jesuit missions in the Río de la Plata Basin were hard up for cash. Jesuit missions at this time were essentially closed economies, producing most of their own subsistence food and supplies. However the Spanish Crown demanded that taxes be paid in hard currency, which meant that they had better produce something to sell at market.

Jesuit Guarani mission in Argentina.

Identifying a gap in the market, the Jesuits switched from supporting a ban on mate to actively promoting its production. In the 1650s they began converting their missions to yerba factories and achieved what had proven impossible to producers back in Paraguay: domestication.

While the Jesuits kept their domestication process a trade secret, it is thought that they fed the seeds to birds and that after passing through their digestive system, the seeds could be planted on a plot.

Guarani harvesting and curing yerba mate.

In no time the Jesuits began making serious bank, and consumption spread to all corners of the Spanish Empire. Yerba mate became so popular in fact that it was used as currency when coins were scarce.  

After the suppression of the Jesuits in Spanish America in 1767, the industry fell into decline and never attained the widespread adoption that cocoa and coffee did in the metropoles in Europe. 

Jesuits in South America.

The Spanish got tired of Jesuits making all that money and sent them packing.

The Gauchos

While it may not have caught on in Europe, it did remain very popular among the native mestizo population, particularly among the archetypal gauchos of the Argentine Pampas and the Brazilian Rio Grande Do Sul. Much like their cousins, the rough and tumble cowboys of the American Southwest, the mounted gauchos have become a near mythical symbol of national pride and hardscrabble independence.

Gauchos drinking mate.

Apart from their legendary horse-riding skills, what is remarkable about the gauchos is their ability to survive, for months at a time, on little more than beef and mate.

In addition to caffeine, yerba mate contains B and C vitamins, the minerals potassium, magnesium, and manganese, and a higher antioxidant content than green tea. It's basically a liquid dietary supplement, but also one that suppresses appetite, helpful when all you've got is pampas grass and cow meat.

Yerba mate gourd and straw.

Dinner is served. [anetagu / 123RF]

This combination of beef, horses, and yerba mate helped the Spanish and Portuguese conquer the vast open plains of the Southern Cone. 

Gauchos drinking mate and playing the guitar in the Argentine Pampas.

Gauchos circa 1890. Note that the badass on the right is sitting on the severed head of a f***ing bull.

These days most Argentines don't live on the pampas, and few have sat atop the freshly severed head of a large ungulate, but the tradition of excessive yerba mate consumption is alive and well.

Man in car in Buenos Aires drinking yerba mate.

Now that's dedication to a habit right there. [Lars Curfs]

And if you ever find yourself lost in the South American lowlands, just remember, you can live off of cow meat and mate for a very long time.

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— Hiller Dry Goods


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