By Edward Wilkinson-Latham

Earlier this year I decided to banish coffee from my life, finally convinced by health conscious friends that I my habitual three espresso a day lifestyle was just too toxic. “Drink green tea,” I was told, “it’s a natural antioxidant.” So I tried it but it made me so calm and quiet that I felt I’d lost my usual morning “how di do”. That was until I discovered a certain herbal tea whilst visiting South America.

Drunk in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay Yerba Maté tea, often just referred to as Maté has become almost as pathologically ritualized as coffee and tea use in West. Pronounced "yerba mahtay" this cultural drink with ancient origins is not only a pleasant tea devoid of side effects and toxicity, but it is a serious invigorator of the mind and body and a health promoter par excellence.

In Buenos Aires, people carry their Maté with them throughout the day in the same manner as commuters in the US and Canada clasp their pint size metal coffee mugs. But unlike the toxic effects of coffee or black tea, Maté is known as a whole body tonic, increasing mental clarity, as well as boosting the immunity system, cleansing and detoxifying the blood, combating fatigue, controlling the appetite, reducing stress, and supposedly slowing the process of aging.

Maté (flex paraguariensis) is an evergreen member of the holly family, classified vaguely by Western herbal medicine as an aromatic stimulant containing numerous vitamins and minerals that increase resistance to fatigue. From a chemical point of view, Yerba Maté contains amongst other ingredients glucose, potassium, lithium, folic, sulfuric, carbon, chloric and citric acids, magnesium and iron. The most interesting compounds from a therapeutic standpoint are Theophylline, used to prevent asthma and Theobromine a lasting stimulant with a mood improving effect also found in cocoa and chocolate.

It was during the Spanish colonization of South America when Hernando Arias de Saaverdra, the first-born American born governor of the New World observed that the Guarani Indians handled rigorous tasks put to them much better than his own Spanish troops. He soon discovered the natives drank tea made out of 'yerba silvestre caa'...Maté. The Jesuits then briefly tried to ban the plant for they consider it addictive, but after they realized that natives would actually work harder if they had their tea, the Spanish priests abandoned their sanctions and encouraged its mass cultivation.

In modern Argentina and Uruguay today Maté is drunk from a little hollow gourd or metal cup sometimes decorated with silver ornaments as if it were a piece of jewelry and he tea is drained through a special metal straw (bombilla), with perforated ends to assure flow. With a taste similar to green tea once boiling water had been added, each cup of dried Maté will give approx 8-10 refills before it is void of flavour.

Throughout my trip, even on airplanes, Maté was not only drunk from a gourd, but also brewed in the bag, known as 'Maté cocido'. On returning to Toronto I noticed that Maté had crossed South American borders. Whilst shopping in Kensington Market I realized the same Latin stores I often frequented to buy other goods sold a wide variety of ground Maté from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, as well as gourds and bombillas. I now sit happily at my desk at work with my mug of Maté at my side refilling it with hot water occasionally and even experimenting with adding a bit of honey, mint or even lemon grass from time to time. Healthier, focused, energized and on the ball, I wonder why I didn’t discover Maté sooner and put up with all those ugly coffee jitters to get me through the work day.