18 . 07 . 16
Sharing in Argentina
A hot water dispenser for drinking mate. Writing and image by Julia Georgallis.
Like a good friend Argentina is a warm and generous place. It offers a lot. There are waterfalls and ranches and vineyards and glaciers and cities and lakes and snow and beaches. It’s for the greedy traveller, activity wise. And also food wise. But aside from the quality of food, Argentina’s food culture has so much behind it symbolically – it is what happens when you mix generosity with South American magic.
This magic comes, I think, from the presence of so much belief, not necessarily in religion, but in all the small things. A lot of the Argentines I had the pleasure of meeting were full to the brim of charming idiosyncracies and rituals about everything – from the ratios of Fernet (an Italian imported digestif that tastes a bit like Jagermeister, drunk in Argentina with ice and coke) to how much sugar you should put in your mate. Food rituals permeate everyday life – Take Gnocchi Day (dia de noquis). On the 29th of the month many put some money under a plate of gnocchi, usually the largest denomination of cash carried at the time, to give prosperity in the month ahead. Gnocchi Day is a clue about the cultural influences on Argentina – let’s not forget that the country is a mixture of colonising Spaniards and fleeing post WW2 Germans and, as the appearance of gnocchi suggests, Italians. Throw in a dictatorial government and an ever fluctuating economy and you get a real need for some kind of stability, some kind of pleasure in things being just so.
Something that is distinctly NOT European, however, is yerba mate (prounounced matt-eh). Argentinians, some Brazilians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, a hand full of Bolivians and Southern Chileans can be found, at most times of day, toting a hot flask, mate cup, metal straw and a pack of yerba. (There are even hot water dispensers in public places like petrol stations just incase.) With one of the main things about home that I really missed whilst on a six month trip round Latin America being tea, mate very quickly became my replacement. A green, bitter, caffeinated bunch of herbs (a relative of the holly, first harvested by the Guarani tribe), it’s a bit like green tea on steroids. Drunk by packing a gourd shaped mug with herbs, filling it with hot water and sipping on a metal straw (you aren’t allowed to touch the straw with your hands!) until the water is empty. Once you’re done, refill with more hot water and pass the gourd to your neighbour. Mate, many explained to me, is about sharing ideas. When you drink mate, you have to have a conversation, after all you’re drinking out of the same cup. It’s quite an intimate process and often leads to D&Ms, heated debates or revelations. In this respect, it’s a more than tea. (I will probably be exiled for saying this). Drinking tea can also be about sharing it with someone else, especially when it comes to making other people a nice cuppa – it’s one of the most generous things you can do at 4 pm when you’re feeling sluggish at work, or when your friend really needs you to lend them an ear. But tea can also be enjoyed alone, as a break or as a mode of procrastination. Mate, however, should be drunk with others. It’s just no fun without the presence of others.
A great many things in Argentina are done in groups or in pairs, not because they need to be, but because of the gesture. It took me a while to realise that portion sizes in restaurants are very often for two. Like tapas or mezes, you don’t just go out for eating’s sake. You eat out for the shared experience. Birthdays are another cause for gestures, one of the most traditional forms of birthday cake being Choco Torta. Now, this cake is an assembly job that could give you a serious heart attack – comprised of a jenga like layer of chocolate biscuits, dulce de leche, cream and milk. But. It can’t be bought. Shops don’t sell it. It HAS to be made. And yet again, the gesture of making it for someone is what gives it its significance. Otherwise it is just another pile of sugar and milk.
And so. From Iguassu to Patagonia. Yes, there was lots of delightful food, but eating in this big country is mainly about companionship as well as taste. And it can be said in many ways that this is the same the world over. For cups of tea, a round of mate, a glass of something strong or making someone a cake all mean the same thing. When you offer someone these things you are also offering the equivalent of a pat on the back, a cuddle, a handshake or a little bit of courage to welcome them in or send them, happily, on their way.