In its purest form, maté has a distinctive, somewhat bitter taste, but whether you enjoy it the traditional way or jazz it up with other flavors, maté is a great way to add a gaucho twist to your tea parties -- or to your film nights. A maté and movie pairing creates a full sensory tour of Andean South America.
The Maté Ritual
My first encounter with maté was a disaster. My host handed me a strange cup with a silver straw. I thanked her, jiggled the straw around a bit and took a tentative sip, making three faux pas in one fell swoop.
The ritual for making and drinking maté, I quickly discovered, is a well-established one. The host places a scoop of mate leaves into a gourd and pushes them to one side with the bombilla-- the silver straw -- creating an empty space.
Next, cold water is poured carefully into the space, until it reaches the same level as the leaves. Once this water is absorbed, the mixture is pushed to the side once more and hot water is poured in, until the gourd is full.
Without jiggling the bombilla, which causes its filter to become blocked, the host drinks the entire gourd, then refills it with hot water and passes it to the next person, who takes it wordlessly and drinks it all. The process is repeated as many times as desired; the maté can take about ten refills before it becomes lavado (washed out).
It’s certainly an experience, but if you don’t have a gourd or bombilla on hand, you can simply brew the maté in a teapot with a strainer, or in a French press, and serve it in individual cups.
Maté and Movies
If you can’t pop down to Patagonia, bring this celebration of gaucho culture to life with an Andean film night. South American cinema often goes under the radar, but it is diverse, rich, and multi-layered, with a genre-spanning collection of films to explore.
Similarly, the variations of maté are endless, so you can customize your maté to match your movie. Whether you want a movie and a maté for the hot, summer season, or a warming drink and wintry film for a cozy evening, here are four pairings to fire up your gaucho nights.
Traditional Maté: The Motorcycle Diaries
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) is Argentina’s biggest international box office success of recent years, and with good reason. An outstanding biopic of a young Che Guevara, it is also a quintessential road trip movie and an all-encompassing introduction to the cultures, landscapes, and people of South America.
To match the gritty, uplifting, and deeply South American spirit of this film, traditional maté is the only fitting partner.
Brew the maté leaves (about 1 teaspoon per cup, but adjust to your own tastes) in warm, but not boiling, water for 2-3 minutes. Serve in small cups. Add a little sugar or sweetener if the taste is too bitter.
Sweet Orange Maté: Octubre
Peruvian cinema is evolving, with a new wave of filmmakers trying ever-bolder and more interesting themes -- and Octubre (2010) is one of the results. It’s a poignant and sometimes darkly funny film which charts the events of one October in Lima for a miserly moneylender, a spiritual spinster, and the unexpected baby which brings them together.
Orange is a classic twist on traditional maté, and with a dash of honey to finish, making it as bittersweet as Octubre.
Add the finely-chopped zest of 1 orange to the maté leaves and squeeze a little of the juice into the teapot/French press before adding the water. Once poured, stir in a little honey to taste.
Mint & Lemon Iced Maté: La Ciénaga
Set in the province of Salta, in the conservative northwest of Argentina, La Ciénaga (2001) portrays the slow unraveling of a bourgeois family, who escape to their country house in the heat of summer. As the parents drink to forget their problems, their teenage brood are left to fend for themselves, and a sense of foreboding settles as heavily as the sultry air.
A refreshing, iced maté will help to keep things cool as the temperatures -- and troubles -- heat up.
Brew fresh mint leaves and the finely-chopped zest of a lemon with the maté leaves. Chill the brewed tea in the refrigerator for about 2 hours. Half-fill glasses with the cold tea and top up with lemonade or sparkling water.
Spiced Latte Maté: Cerro Bayo
The small mountain town of Cerro Bayo in Patagonia is in the icy grips of winter when the matriarch of a family is left in a coma after a suicide attempt. While that may not sound like the premise of a comedy, with sharply observed family dynamics and wry characterization, Cerro Bayo (2010) is proof that Argentinean cinema can do quirky, off-beat humor.
A warming, milky maté is the perfect partner to this gently comedic portrait of rural family life. Snuggle up and get cozy as the Patagonian winter howls.
Rather than brewing the maté in a teapot, put the leaves into a saucepan with milk and spices of your choice. My favorite combination is coconut milk with a cinnamon stick and a pinch of nutmeg. Heat the mixture until warmed through, then strain and pour into mugs. Dust with a little ground cinnamon to serve.
Once you get a taste for maté, you’ll be trying out all kinds of variations of your own -- and there’s bound to be a South American movie to match!
All photos are courtesy of the author.