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Articles Blog

Montevideo, Uruguay

Karyn Planett

Maté, Meat and Music

Uruguayans absolutely love life.  They’re festive and fun and filled with a quest to embrace each day with some form of excitement, entertainment or enjoyment.  Sports, wine, horses.  Fashion, food, nightlife.  But, there are three things that are absolutely sacred to the people of Montevideo.  To fully slip into the routine of a local’s day, you must learn a bit about their passions.

A Cup of Tea?

Not really.  Not like you think, pinkie in the air, little sandwiches.  No.  Uruguayans, like many of their neighbors in southern South America enjoy the triple-leaded, high-octane, tiger-in-the-tank type of tea spelled “maté” and pronounced “mah-tay.”  Not “mate”, like an Australian friend.

It can truly knock your socks off because it is really strong.  Not only is the tea strong because it’s made from the dried leaves of the yerba maté plant, but they use a lot of it for one single serving.  A lot!  And the leaves are often pulverized into a dusty powder locals call “yerba.”  There’s also a more traditional blend with more roughage, but let’s leave that subject alone.

Everyone has a very particular way of brewing his or her maté.  Like the Brits say, “bring the cup to the kettle not the kettle to the cup”.   Well, the Uruguayans have a ritual that’ll put those Brits to shame.  And they don’t use china cups, no no.  Their maté is consumed from hollowed-out gourds, as well as wooden and ceramic cups.

They must also have the proper straw, which is called a bomba or a bombilla.  Though there are lesser versions, a traditional bomba is made from silver.  It’s more a sieve really in case you don’t twizzle your leaves properly.  You want only the tea, not sludge.

Locals fill their gourds half-full with leaves, partially packed.  Cover with their palm, invert, return upright, shake the dusty bits that stick to said palm then wipe on designer jeans.  They add a pinch of this or a dash of that for flavor or medicinal purposes, then cool water.  One doesn’t want to disturb the nutritional components of the leaves, does one?  No.  Next, they add hot water… just off the boil.  Too much water, wrong.  Too little water, strong.  Cover.  Shake.  Tilt.  Shake again.  Let it settle.

Of course, all the swirling gloms the yerba leaves to one side so the bomba and the water go into the empty portion.  The tea drinker’s thumb must rest atop the straw opening while being inserted into the base of the gourd.

Where’s Starbucks?

Then and only then is it ready to sip.

At this point, though, the kids have missed the bus, breakfast is cold, and Mom hasn’t even started putting on her make-up.

Maté is a social ritual filled with tradition.  Buy a beautiful gourd with a decorative silver rim, a silver bomba, some yerba tea, sit with a friendly person on a park bench and have them show you the ropes.  It’s so South American.

Where’s the Beef?

Question—What country has the highest per capita beef consumption in the world?

Answer—Uruguay with approximately 130 pounds of beef per person per year.  Add to that about 42 pounds of poultry and another 13 pounds of lamb and you’ve got yourself some serious carnivores.  185 pounds total per year means about one-half pound of meat consumed by every single Uruguayan every single day.  Well, I guess you can skip the crudités.  

For the record, and I do mean the record, Uruguayans used to consume an amount of beef annually that basically was the equivalent of their body weight.  To make all this dining possible, there are Uruguayan parrillas that are basically steakhouses where the meat is often carved right at your table off long sabers.  Try the vacio, a lean cut.  And, when dining off the regular menu in traditional restaurants, expect a steak the size of a bicycle seat.

Of course, the follow-up question is, “Why do Uruguayans eat so much beef?”.  Because the meat in this part of the world is among the finest.  In fact, in 2011 Russia imported more than one-third of Uruguay’s output of beef.  And, it’s reported that most Uruguayan beef is grass-fed and hormone-free per legal guidelines imposed by the government.

Give Me the Beat, Boys!

You’ve sipped and supped.  Now it’s time for music. These people love a unique Uruguayan music called Candombe.  Its origin was probably with the African slaves who arrived by ship in the 18th Century.  It was then religious in nature. Drums called tamboriles lay down the beat for today’s Candombe street drummers who march together in a drum corps.  Other casual groups form along the ramblas and beachfront to play their drums for hours on end.  Shouldn’t be long now till you stumble across some drummers for yourself.  And, at Carnival time, the whole thing is spiced up with skimpy costumes, a few feathers and sequins and not a lot more.  UNESCO recognizes Candombe as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage”.  You’ll recognize it as hot hot hot hot hot.