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Sunday, October 13, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Want To Be A Gaucho? Better Smile When You Drink My Mate, Amigo

AP

VENANCIO AIRES, Brazil - To hobnob with a gaucho on the South American pampas, you don't need to ride bareback, wear baggy "bombacha" pants or a scruffy poncho, eat meat or grow a walrus mustache.

Just don't say no when he drinks from a gourd filled with sludgy green liquid, hands it to you and says drink up. That's bad cowboy etiquette, amigo.

He's drinking erva mate (pronounced AIR-vah MAH-tay), a bitter concoction brewed from tree leaves and sprigs. And if herbal tea seems better suited to armchair cowboys, be advised these Marlboro men take their mate seriously.

"It's sort of a bonding thing," says Henrique da Costa, a swarthy cattle herder of 27. He sips his mate and burps. "If I offer a stranger my mate and he doesn't accept, well, sir, I just don't trust him too much from then on out."

The British prize their afternoon high tea. The Japanese cherish their simple and Spartan ceremony. So, da Costa asks, is it really so strange that gauchos have their own tea ritual?

A bond across classes

Across the southern cone of South America, millions have an almost mystical devotion to mate. In a region settled by immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Poland and the Middle East, mate is a cultural bond across class and ethnic divisions.

Even snooty Argentines, jealously proud of their European roots, see mate as an important link to their Indian and Spanish colonial heritage.

Each year, Brazil's three southernmost states imbibe 110,000 tons of mate. Argentina consumes 175,000 tons - more than 11 pounds a person. Tiny Uruguay, the most dedicated mate-guzzler in the Americas, polishes off 33,000 tons. That works out to 22 pounds for every Uruguayan man, woman and child.

Looks like grass clippings

To the uninitiated, mate looks like finely milled grass clippings with a sprig or two dropped in. But mate connoisseurs point out that the shoots and 8-inch leaves are plucked by hand from a tree with the tongue-twisting name "Ilex Paraguariensis," a relative of holly.

"It's the most natural drink since water," says Teresa Urban, author of "The Book of Mate," one of many guides in print. "Mate contains no preservatives, colors or other sweeteners. It's uncompromising and true, a gift from the womb of Mother Nature."

Maybe so. But its appeal can be lost on first-timers. "Overall, I'd say it tasted like shoe polish," says Don Schwartz, an American who tried mate during a visit to Buenos Aires last year.

Mate before bedtime for `macho'

Yet to devotees, mate does everything but fetch the paper. Some say its high concentration of vitamins can cure baldness. (It doesn't.) Others say a secret enzyme in mate helps ward off obesity and pimples. (No tests have been done to prove this.) Many swear it adds years to one's life.

"My grandmother lived to 101. She drank mate five times a day since she was a little girl," says Berenice Ribeiro, a 42-year-old homemaker.

Male drinkers are nearly unanimous on one point: "If you want to be macho, a REAL gaucho with the ladies," says Guilherme Cavalcanti, 31, "then, brother, take a little extra mate before going to bed."

About the only time the herb should not be drunk, fanatics say, is while driving. Uruguayans tell the tragic story of a congressman, Carlos Rossi, who was sipping mate while driving his car in Montevideo in 1986. His car hit a speed bump and the jolt sent the bomba (metal straw) through the roof of his mouth and into his brain, killing him.

But mate-drinking continues on Montevideo's buses - despite notices warning of the danger.

Prevented scurvy

The Guarani Indians in what is now Paraguay have used mate since ancient times. In 1609, Spanish Jesuit missionaries arrived and began cultivating it, employing more than 100,000 Guaranis in 33 feudal mate plantations in Paraguay and the province of Sao Pedro do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

When King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits in 1767, the plantations were abandoned. But mate survived and its lore grew among the gauchos, who lacked fruits and vegetables but never developed scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. Mate's high concentration of vitamins C, A, B-1, B-2, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron, calcium and caffeine (about half as much as coffee) helped them survive.

During World War I, mate cultivation resumed. But attempts to plant it outside the South American panhandle failed. The tree, which lives about 100 years and can be harvested year-round, withered and died every time.

Today, mate is a $3.2 billion industry employing more than 400,000 people in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

In Brazil, a 2.2-pound bag costs about $4 - a significant expense in a country where the same amount of coffee costs $1. And it is starting to win over consumers outside the deep south. In Sao Paulo, a megatropolis of 12 million people, Paulistas now drink eight times as much mate as they do regular "black" tea, though coffee remains Numero Uno.

A small following in the U.S.

Last year, Argentina exported a record $30 million in mate - up sixfold since 1990 - to 40 countries.

Mate even seems to be gaining a toehold in America. About $400,000 worth is consumed annually in the United States, though mostly by Argentines and Brazilians living in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

One company, Cawy Bottling Co., now cans "Materva," a carbonated drink made from erva mate extract. The Novato, Calif.,-based Republic of Tea, which specializes in herbal blends, offers "Mate Latte," which is marketed as an "All Night Samba Herb Tea." Though its main ingredient is Brazilian mate, the company added cocoa, almonds, sunflowers and cornflower blossoms to soften the taste for American tongues.

In November, Coca-Cola launched "Lift" - a processed mate drink - in the Brazilian town of Maringa, in Parana state. The company plans to market Lift in Uruguay and Argentina, but not - for now - in the United States. The hitch? "Most Americans have never heard of mate," says Carol Martel, a spokeswoman at Coca-Cola's headquarters in Atlanta.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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