In an earlier post on Flavors of Brazil, I wrote about the plant erva-mate (or in Spanish, yerba mate) which is the iconic drink of a large part of southern South America. You can read about the plant here. Throughout the southern cone of South America, the leaves of the erva-mate plant are used to create a variety of drinks - some hot, some cold, some with green fresh leaves, some with dry leaves, some bitter, some sweet. In this post, we'll discuss the way erva-mate is most commonly drunk in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul - in the drink known as Chimarrão.
In Brazilian Portuguese, the inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul are called Gaúchos. Gaúcho in Portuguese carries the same original meaning it does in Argentinian Spanish - referring to the ranchers and cowboys of the vast pampas of this region. In Portuguese, the word is pronounced slightly differently than in Spanish, as "ga-OO-shoe." To most present-day Brazilians, however, a Gaúcho means nothing more than a person who lives in Rio Grande do Sul, and the word has lost its connections to ranching and cowboys.
Even though most Gaúchos have little or nothing to do with cattle ranching, the culture of the original cowboy gaúchos is still very much present in the south of Brazil. This can be seen in the cuisine of Rio Grande do Sul, and heard in the music; both derive from traditional gaúcho ways.
Many Gaúchos make drinking erva-mate a daily habit; indeed, many drink it continually all day. In the streets or in the parks of any city in Rio Grande do Sul, at work or at home, a significant part of the population will be drinking erva-mate in the form of chimarrão at any given time. And it's easy to spot who's drinking chimarrão, because the apparatus used, and the ritual of preparation are unique to this type of tea. For many visitors to Porto Alegre, or other cities of this state, the sight of omnipresent chimarrão drinkers is one of their strongest memories when they return home.
To make chimarrão, some erva-mate leaves are placed in the bottom of the cuia, then hot water is poured over them, and left to steep. After a few minutes it is ready to drink.
The etiquette and ritual of drinking chimarrão is detailed and unvarying. Chimarrão is a social drink, and there are strict rules which must be obeyed when drinking it with others. The "host/hostess", the person who is offering the drink, must be the first person to pour hot water over the tea, and also the first person to drink. This is considered altruistic, as the first infusion is the strongest, and can be bitter. When he or she has drunk all the chimarrão he must refill the cuia with hot water from the thermos, and pass the drink and the thermos to the next person (usually people are served in order of importance, socially or economically). That person in turn must drink all the chimarrão, then refill the cuia and pass it to the next person along with the thermos. In turn, each person in the group receives the cuia filled with chimarrão , drinks it, refills the cuia and passes it on. It is considered extremely bad manners not to drink all the chimarrão, and to leave some in the cuia for the next person. To show to the group that one has drunk all the chimarrão, it is considered polite to drink until the bomba makes a gurgling sound, indicating there is no more liquid in the cuia.
Chimarrão is not the only drink made from erva-mate, but it is definitely the most important one culturally. Drinking chimarrão with family, colleagues or friends creates a social bond, and fosters one's identity as a Gaúcho.
In future posts, I'll talk about some of the other drinks made from this very special type of holly.