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Yerba mate

Yerba mate, a South American delight.

Tea is most commonly associated with Asia. And it's true that the majority of tea comes from China, India and other countries in that area. But there are other countries that have the climate, soil and expertise to produce a fine tea.

In recent years, South Africa has been on the radar with the rising popularity of Rooibos. Delightful as it is, Rooibos is not a traditional tea. It's not made from the Camilla Senensis plant. Another plant makes for a great tea, and this one is cultivated in South America: Yerba Mate.

Produced from the Ilex Paraguariensis tree, part of the holly family, it makes a fine herbal tea. Grown in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil it is a South American wonder. Each country has its own distinctive style of Yerba Mate tea. In Brazil, the leaves are toasted, yielding a stronger taste. In Argentina, the cocido is a fine breakfast tea.

Like other herbal teas, it has many of the great health benefits of a traditional leaf. It provides a relaxing drink while aiding digestion. And it still has many of the antioxidants that are helpful in warding of cancers.

Even in bag or loose leaf form it still makes for a great brew. It can be a very fine, almost powdery substance, though. The leaves are dried, then crumbled into a very fine brown-leaf tea mixture. So, if you don't care for bits of herb in the liquid, filter well. The tea can even be prepared in a French press.

It's easy to obtain in bag form, but for a more traditional South American brew there's an alternative preparation method. Instead of a teapot, a gourd and a bombilla is used. The gourd (called a mate) is used in place of a cup, and the bombilla is a metal straw that gives the smooth herbal a nice little tang.

Fill the gourd 3/4 full of herb, then pour cold water over them until they're wetted but not drowned. Let them soak for a few minutes. While you wait, heat a cup of water to about 82°C/180°F, then add enough water to fill the gourd. Steep for a few minutes. Then insert the bombilla filter end down into the liquid and sip. Arriba!

In the traditional social setting, one person typically takes the role of preparer and server and has the first sip. Then the gourd and straw is passed from one person to the next. And you thought only the Japanese had tea rituals!

Pick up a gourd and bombilla and have some tea South American style.