This time last week, I was holed up in the Midlands; at the Pioneer Centre in Kidderminster – venue for Inspire!, Latin Link’s annual conference.
I’ve been to Inspire! a few times before, and it’s always great fun. It’s just a fantastic atmosphere, full of stories of the mountains and the first time someone had cuy to eat (don’t ask if you’re fond of fluffy animals), or of the market traders with their bamba (pirate) Salsa and Reggaeton CDs.
At any Latin Link event, the Argentineans are always easy to spot – both them and the Brits who’ve spent some time there. What gives them away is the intriguing little globe-like object they all hold in their hands and taking occasional pulls on through a shiny metal straw thing. Some will have a small flask of hot water, from which they’ll occasionally give the little globes a top-up. Get too close, and they’ll offer you a sip – your initiation into the world of Mate (pronounced “matay”).
Mate is a drink intended to be shared with people. It’s a huge part of Argentinean culture. “It’s what makes Argentina special,” I’ve been told by one avid drinker. “You do have to develop a taste for it,” advises another.
I’m still some way from developing my taste for it. My sweet tooth is legendary, and Mate isn’t the sweetest thing I’ve ever drunk by any means. But when it comes to those little containers it’s served in… I was sold on those ages ago.
My fascination with mate might have something to do with me sort of having a thing for pipes. I’ve never smoked in my life and don’t intend to start anytime soon. But there’s just something special about pipe smokers. Without his pipe, Sherlock Holmes would just be a pompous nerd with a daft hat saying patronising things to his sidekick Watson. Likewise, without mate, Argentineans are just Latinos who pronounce some of their words funny – saying “sh” where other Spanish speakers say “y”, and where English speakers would say ‘l” (that’s your Spanish pronunciation lesson for today, folks).
I’ve never seen two identical ones. I’ve seen some that looked really plain, and others that could pass for priceless works of art. I’ve even seen one made out of a horn (Argentina consumes more beef per person than any other nation on earth. I guess someone’s got to find a use for all those leftover cow parts). But I have never seen two that looked exactly the same.
If I ever go to Argentina, I’ll buy the most arty-looking mate container I can find. I’ll be the most sociable guy around, sharing it with everyone in sight. I’d let everyone else drink while I just held that round bowl in my hand, looking and feeling cool.
Pase el mate a la izquierda (pass the mate ‘pon the left hand side), and hand me that bamba Daddy Yankee CD, please…