Yerba Mate offers a sweet buzz and a sense of community

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Image credit above: Café Corazon’s eye-catching mural, a depiction of “all the Latin cultures that found their way to Kansas City,” was painted by local artists Rodrigo Alvarez and Isaac Tapia. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

Miel Castagna-Herrera from Café Corazón lines up four thermal gourd-shaped cups containing dark green and straw-colored yerba mate blends from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to demonstrate an age-old ritual.

A caffeinated beverage similar in many ways to tea, yerba mate (MAH-tay) makes up half of the menu at Latinx Cafe at 1721 Westport Road, recognizable by passers-by for a striking Frida Kahlo mural on the side of the building.

Inside the cafe, an elderly Spanish-speaking couple enjoy alfajores (AL-fa-HOR-es), a macaroon-like sandwich cookie filled with creamy dulce de leche, while Castagna-Herrera speaks through a tasting , starting with the country of origin I would be more familiar with – Brazil – and the flavors I generally gravitate towards – chai spices.

Café Corazon’s menu is split between Latin coffee and yerba mate drinks. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

“Most of the people who wrote about us focused on coffee, probably because they didn’t know yerba mate,” she says.

“It’s an education, and we really want to do it right because we represent a lot of people in other countries who drink yerba mate,” says co-owner and husband Curtis Herrera, who comes from a background. Mexican and Apache.

So far, only 20-25% of Café Corazón customers regularly order yerba mate, possibly because non-Latin consumers are generally more familiar with energy drinks containing this herb. Across Latin America and South America, the caffeine-rich drink is a common substitute for coffee, and the rituals surrounding its preparation provide an opportunity to create a sense of community.

“I have the impression that if we were on the coasts, people would eat it, but here it’s much slower to sell,” says Castagna-Herrera, who learned how to make yerba mate from his immigrant father. Argentinian while growing up in New Mexico.

Mate contains the leaves and twigs of llex paraguariensi, a relative of the holly plant. Loose tea is traditionally brewed inside a calabash with hot water added to brew, although mate can also be made with steamed milk or even cold water, a preparation known as tereré (TAY-rey-rey).

Indigenous people, starting with the Guarani tribe of Parana in southern Brazil, first drank yerba mate for its gentle buzz and health benefits. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil, cowboys called gauchos steal cattle and drink mate, called in Portuguese chimarrão (SHE-ma-hown).

My husband is Brazilian, so on my first visit to Café Corazón, although the words weren’t the same, I recognized the elements of the ritual: a mark of mate in bright yellow packaging; a contemporary version of the matte gourd; silver straws with an infuser at the end known as a bombilla (BOM-bee-yah); small brushes for cleaning straws; and even a thermos display for hot water.

To learn the technique of wrapping my mug with mate, the Herrera asked me to place a hand on top of the mug to create a suction, turning it over and shaking it, leaving a ring of dust in it. the palm of the hand.

Maribel Nelson of Blue Springs grew up in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil, drinking chimarrão, a version of mate drunk from a gourd through a metal straw.
Maribel Nelson of Blue Springs grew up in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil, drinking chimarrão, a version of mate drunk from a gourd through a metal straw. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

When the cup is held on its side, a “slope” of plant material forms. Water or milk is poured over it. The cup can be carefully tilted vertically and a metal straw is carefully inserted on the opposite side, just touching the bottom of the hill. Once the straw is inserted, it should not be moved, otherwise the leaves could block the holes in the infuser.

Argentina is currently the world’s largest producer of mate. Like coffee beans around the world, mate is categorized by yerba (the size of the leaf of the herb), palo (how many sticks are allowed in a blend), and povo (referring to the amount of dust in the mixture).

Each blend has its own flavor profile – some with herbal, herbaceous notes, others with herbal, earthy and sometimes even smoky notes, depending on where it was grown and whether it was dried in the oven. air or lightly smoked. The menu at Café Corazón also offers flavor additions, such as chamomile tea, lavender, rose petals, hibiscus flowers, honey, mint, orange peel or espresso.

“One thing that we cannot experience right now that is fearful is the whole (loss of) the cultural component of mate due to the pandemic,” Castagna-Herrera said. “Mate is so much fun because you take the caffeine, so you talk more and more, and faster and faster, and it just keeps going in circles. We try to adapt, but I miss it.

In non-pandemic time, there is an etiquette to sharing the drink as the gourd moves around the circle, including not hogging the bombilla like a microphone, or making sure to sip at the end so others don’t get into the fuss. of another.

“I was thinking about how gauchos survive now,” says Maribel Nelson, who was born and raised in Rio Grande do Sul and lives in Blue Springs, where she works as a personal trainer and Mary Kay consultant.

“Back in my hometown, you would have had friends everywhere, like even in the bank, which is weird now.” You wouldn’t kiss weird people on the mouth, but you were drinking a glass of the cuia (kwee-YAH, mate gourd in Portuguese), and we never thought about that until the pandemic. “

Nelson recently launched a call to form a traditional partner circle – an informal gathering to sip and talk – on a local Brazilian social media platform. One Sunday afternoon, she arrived in scenic South Park in Overland Park with her Missouri-born husband Ted and their 9-month-old daughter, Joy.

Maribel and Ted Nelson, along with their 9-month-old daughter Joy, recently organized a Partner Circle at South Park in Overland Park.  They wore the colors of Rio Grande do Sul and sipped mate in their cuia while taking some family photos.
Maribel and Ted Nelson, along with their 9-month-old daughter Joy, recently organized a Partner Circle at South Park in Overland Park. They wore the colors of Rio Grande do Sul and sipped mate in their cuia while taking some family photos. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

In addition to a diaper bag for Joy, they also brought a leather backpack designed to perfectly hold a thermos, a tea box, as well as related accessories, like a record slightly larger than a CD for grabbing dust, an ornate leather cover to protect the mate hill from landslides and a fine mesh cover to store straw.

When the Nelson’s got married, Maribel’s grandfather gave the couple a monogrammed cuia and a silver straw adorned with gold and silver.

Ted Nelson, who works remotely for Garmin, has become a staunch companion and drinks the brew almost daily until the leaves are lavado (washed). His colleagues often ask him about the green mass wrapped in his cup, which in classic Brazilian style has fewer leaves and sticks and more dark green powder that resembles Japanese matcha.

“Someone said, ‘What is this? Did you grab it from the bottom of a lawn mower? ‘… I’m just saying’ This is Brazilian green tea, ‘”he said. He said the same thing to a lady who once told him not to take drugs in the park.

He has become proficient at packing his companion hill until it is smooth and flat “like freshly fallen snow before you climb it.” He likes mate because it doesn’t give it the same caffeine jitters as coffee.

“I love it just because it makes me feel more relaxed and relaxed,” he says.

Football fan Ted Nelson adds that mate is also a favorite beverage of South American football players, who can often be seen drinking the beverage on the sidelines of a game.

The circle of companions also includes Juçara “Sara” Bressan, who works for the Social Security Administration in Kansas City. Originally from the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, she grew up drinking mate with milk and sugar for breakfast as a child.

Bressan arrived with his longtime friend Matt Henderson, an architect from Overland Park. Like Bressan, Henderson wore a green and yellow national team soccer jersey, but added a woven-straw American cowboy hat – the same hat he wears when playing in a rock band called – wait – Just Add Water.

“I’m a falsified gaucho,” Matt jokes, making up a phrase to evoke a fake cowboy. But he’s a fan of “anything cowboy,” which means he’s also become a fan of comrades knowledgeable about cooking his own cuia, a memento from a trip he took to Brazil.

“It’s not really conducive to the COVID era,” says Henderson, “but I like the community aspect and you share the drink with your family or your group and that’s an all day thing.”

Brazilian and American foreigners chat and sip for several hours on a picnic bench, get to know each other, and periodically fill their cups with hot water. Brazil, which is larger than our 48 contiguous states, is divided along regional and cultural lines, including Africa to the north and Europe to the south.

“It was nice to meet someone near where I’m from… It was nice to meet someone with whom I have something in common,” says Bressan.

Meanwhile, the Herrera are preparing to open a second Café Corazón at 110 Southwest Blvd. in the Carrefour des Arts. The much larger 3,000 square foot space will allow them to host traditional partner circles and other events for Kansas citizens of all stripes.

“It’s like a ceremony, a community building exercise,” says Curtis Herrera. “When we have friends, that’s what we do.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is an award-winning James Beard freelance editor and writer. You can follow Silva on @jillsilvafood.

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