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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Mate, a herbal infusion obsessively sipped throughout Argentina, should be savored with as much sensitivity as wine, according to a local sommelier devoted to the bitter tea.
Karla Johan Lorenzo, one of the world's few sommeliers specialized in the drink, led a sampling session of the simmering brew this week as part of a mate exhibit hosted by the Buenos Aires City Museum.
The beverage is one of the few native traditions that survived the Spanish conquest of the South American nation. Argentines ranging from sophisticated urbanites to cattle rangers see the drink as fundamental to their cultural identity.
"We say we were born drinking mate," said Johan Lorenzo, who is from the mate-growing province of Misiones and just published a book on mate after five years of research. "Mate is my loyal companion. It is always by my side."
In the traditional mate ritual, water is slowly poured onto dry leaves packed to one side of a container, often made of gourd or pumpkin pierced with a metallic straw.
The matero, or mate-maker, takes the first sips to assess the quality of the beverage and then shares it with others.
While Johan Lorenzo slowly stirred and smelled the drink, she told the dozen of congregated mate-lovers that an ideal mate is made of green herbs with a slightly yellow tinge and water between 80 and 85 degrees Celsius (176-185 Fahrenheit).
"You have to differentiate between the soft and strong leaves, between the ones grown in the countryside and those from the mountains," she explained. "It is fascinating to explore the tastes and aromas of mate."
But at first, Johan Lorenzo's fellow sommeliers were not particularly encouraging about her decision to bypass Malbec in favor of mate.
"They didn't understand," she said. "But there is a need for people to learn how to prepare mate."
Part of the national obsession can probably be traced to mateina, the stimulant found in the brew that, although not nearly as strong as caffeine, adds a certain kick.
Argentina's history was reflected throughout the Buenos Aires City Museum mate exhibit. Dainty porcelain containers were the rage during the booming 1920s while gourds proclaiming 'The Falklands are ours' gained popularity in the 1980s.
The mate tree thrives in the subtropical forests of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, but, according to Johan Lorenzo, has been unable to develop as successfully elsewhere. The tea is also immensely popular in Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
While leaves continue to be exported, principally to Lebanon and Syria, Argentina prides itself on its status as prime producer and consumer of the herb.
"Mate is much more than an infusion," Johan Lorenzo said. "It is a culture."