yerba matéWelcome to my Spanish classroom.  It’s pretty basic, as far as middle school classrooms go.  But last Tuesday, things took an unusual turn.  After rain canceled a much-anticipated field trip, our teachers were left with a collection of disappointed, antsy eighth graders without backpacks.  The majority of us were sans pencils, paper, books, homework, and reasonable attention spans.

My Spanish teacher, however, is very smart.  She didn’t even try to make us focus on conjugations and direct object pronouns.  Instead, we learned about Latin American culture.  She heated water in a giant dispenser and introduced us to the Argentinian tradition of yerba maté. 

First, we rearranged the desks and sat in groups of four.  Then, each group got a cup of maté.  Traditionally, the tea is served in a special cup or gourd.  This was a classroom.  We used styrofoam. 

She explained that maté is typically shared by a small group of friends or family, usually on a rainy day.  A gourd is filled with yerba maté, and then with hot water.  To avoid eating soggy, warm plant, a special straw known as a bombilla is used.  In our case, the designated server at our table filled a cup (since we didn’t have a gourd) with maté and then water.  After steeping, it was ready for the first person to take a sip.  Once the first person had his / her fill, the server refilled the cup and re-steeped the same leaves for the next person.  Maté can be steeped over and over until the group decides it has lost its flavor.  Sugar can be added by each person, if desired.

bombillaOur first steeping had a strong, bitter flavor and was devoid of sugar.  The rest of my group didn’t enjoy it, and were surprised that I did.  I wasn’t surprised they didn’t enjoy it – it was indeed overly strong.  The next steeping was more enjoyable (for me, anyway).  Apparently, even the weaker taste didn’t make up for the fact we hadn’t accumulated enough sugar in the cup for my classmates.  By the next steeping, so much sugar had been added that the bitterness was almost gone.  That was when the rest of my group could drink it.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t so fond of it, particularly since I could literally see the grains of sugar sitting on top of the herb.

We also learned that there is a defined etiquette involved in sharing maté.  The two main rules are:

  1. Drink the entire cup when it is your turn.  If you only drink some and then hand it to someone else, it is considered rude, like giving someone your leftovers.  (My group didn’t figure this one out until after the fact.  We all tried all of the steepings, but at least we got a variety.)
  2. Don’t move the bombilla / straw!  Stirring the straw or moving it around just gets leaves stuck inside, giving the next person a mouthful of plant.

The experience probably didn’t convince my classroom to start drinking tea, but we did have fun and, even more impressive, we didn’t spill anything on the floor.  Now that was an accomplishment.