Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Paraguay Tea.

Today, August 16th …

In December 1833 Charles Darwin set off aboard the Beagle, on a scientific expedition whose main purpose was to survey the southern coasts of the South American continent. On this day in 1834 he was in Chile, at the top of Bell Mountain, with a beautiful view of the vessels at anchor in Valparaiso bay twenty six miles away. He wrote in his journal:

" … When it was dark, we made a fire beneath a little arbour of bamboos, fried our charqui (or dried slips of beef), took our mate and were quite comfortable. There is an inexpressible charm in thus living in the open air. "

The beverage he was referring to was Yerba Mate or Paraguay Tea, the national drink of Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, a tea – or more properly a tisane – made from the leaves of a small tree (llex paraguariensis) of the holly family. It is also called Missionary Tea or Jesuit Tea, because although it had been used from ancient times by the indigenous people of the area, it was the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century and beyond who encouraged its cultivation as they found “… it restrained the desire of the Indians for spirituous drinks, while its cultivation, collection and preparation gave employment to converted Indians and brought wealth to the order”. Yet another name for this drink is St Bartholomew’s Tea, although I am completely unable to give an explanation for this, and would be most grateful if any readers can enlighten me.

Mate is becoming increasingly popular outside of its country of origin on the basis of its supposed health benefits, with the main promotional virtue being that it is lower in caffeine than tea or coffee – which is a “chose the least poisonous” sort of health recommendation if you ask me. There are just as many conflicting claims for the benefits of drinking mate as there were in the early 18th century, when one visitor wrote “Many things are reported concerning the virtue of this powder or herb; for, they say, if you cannot sleep it will compose you to it; if you are lethargick, it drives away sleep; if you are hungry it satisfies; if your meat does not digest, it causes an appetite.” If there are indeed health benefits, I suspect these have to do with its social role, as a drink of friendship and ritual, for this is a most important part of mate-drinking.

Today’s Recipes …

The method of preparation of mate is essentially the same as with any herbal infusion, although traditionally it is made in a container called a bombilla, and drunk through a special straw.

There do not seem to be any recipes using mate in other dishes, although “proper” tea (Camellia sinensis), particularly green tea, does occasionally appear as an ingredient. Julibean gives an intriguing steamed cake recipe on her blog.

The earliest recipes are for “Tea Cream”, which
was a fashionable dish in the eighteenth century, and is a short step from cream to ice-cream, as these recipes show:

Tea Cream.
Boil a quarter of an ounce of fine hyson tea with half a pint of milk, then strain out the leaves, and put to the milk half a pint of cream and two spoonfuls of rennet. Set it over some hot embers in the dish in which you intend to send it to table, and cover it with a tin plate. When it be thick, it will be enough. You may garnish it with sweetmeats. [Farley, London Art of Cookery; 1800]

Tea Cream Ices.
Make tea very strong in a tea-pot, have your cream ready mixt with the proper quantity of sugar and yolks of eggs, pass your cream through a sieve, pass likewise your tea over it, mix the whole well with a spoon, when that is done put in the sabotiere and make it congeal according to the usual method. [Borella; The Court and Country Confectioner; 1770]

Correction ...

I am grateful to Bridget of Pint Sized Cookery for pointing out my error: I quote from her comment: "Actually, the bombilla is the straw used. The container is called a mate, while the herb is often just called the yerba. Although both the container and herb can be called mate."
Thanks Bridget.

Tomorrow's Story …

Parmentier and Potatoes.

Quotation for the Day …

On Tea: “The Infusion of a China plant sweetened with the pith of an Indian Cane.” Joseph Addison (b. 1672)


Bridget said...

Actually, the bombilla is the straw used. The container is called a mate, while the herb is often just called the yerba. Although both the container and herb can be called mate.

Anonymous said...