When we think of holly trees, we are immediately reminded of Christmas, and glistening green leaves and red berries. But the holly tree of South America is quite different, both in its appearance and function.
The holly tree of South America is the mate`, and it thrives in the rugged mountains of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and it is the source of the popular tealike beverage also called the mate`.
The mate`, unlike its English cousin, reaches only to about 20 feet in height. Its oblong leaves are longer and much lighter in color than those of the English holly, and they also lack the glossy sheen and prickly spines that are the northern holly’s trademarks.
It is the leaves of the mate` that are harvested to make the beverage. In Argentina and Paraguay, where mate` is widely cultivated, commercial growers quickly set the harvested leaves out to dry on special platforms over small wood fires. The leaves must dry immediately or they will quickly ferment and turn black. After about 2 or 3 days, the brittle remains of the leaves are pounded into a coarse powder, which is then put into sacks for an aging period of one year or more. Then the product is shipped all over South America to be made into the popular tealike drink. This drink was enjoyed and prized as a tonic by the Indians of South America long before the Europeans reached the continent.
Today, modern South Americans prize mate` as a tonic and stimulant as well. Like coffee, mate` leaves are rich in caffeine, but also have the added ingredients of neochlorogenic and chlorogenic acids as well as theobromine catechols. These substances together give mate` its tonic properties and make it a reviving, refreshing beverage, much like our coffee or tea.
To South Americans, there is nothing like a mate` break!