That is a mate gourd, a bombilla (or straw) and yerba mate leaves -- the necessary ingredients to make mate, the national drink of Argentina. The harvesting of yerba mate is thought to have begun with the indigenous Guarani tribe during pre-Columbian times. When the Spanish arrived, they exported coffee and tea back to Europe, introducing the Old World to caffeine. But yerba mate never made the transatlantic leap.
Today it's hard to go a couple of blocks in Buenos Aires without seeing someone sipping the beverage, which is made from a species of holly native to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Mate (pronounced MAH-tay) contains mateine, a gentler stimulant than the closely related caffeine, which helps release muscle energy and pace the heartbeat without any of the nasty side effects of coffee.
Mate isn't served in restaurants, instead it's a drink shared among friends, and there's a whole set of social rituals that goes along with drinking mate. (We haven't had the chance to share mate with Argentines yet, so more on the social traditions later.)
Yesterday we headed back to the Recoleta crafts fair to find the right utensils for making mate. First you need a gourd. Traditional mate gourds are made of hollowed out calabash. Wooden gourds are popular because they retain the taste of the mate from when they're first cured. Ceramic and metal gourds are also common. Second, you need a straw or bombilla, which is made of silver, nickel or stainless steel, and acts as a filter. Finally, you need yerba mate leaves, which come con palo (with stems) and sin palo (without stems).
To prepare the mate, you fill the gourd about 3/4 full with leaves. You then add hot but not boiling water (in the summer, mate can be served cold). You then sip the mate through the bombilla, refilling the gourd again and again until the leaves have lost their flavor.
Ben was our guinea pig. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera ready quick enough to capture the look on his face when he took the first sip.
Mate is very bitter. It is, as they say, an "acquired taste." After my first sip, I would have said it was roughly as tasty as cough medicine. But we added a little sugar (technically cheating) and kept drinking. I figure it's kind of like having coffee for the first time -- no one takes their first sip of coffee, especially black coffee, and thinks "wow this is delicious." But they keep drinking, and eventually they know the location of every coffee shop within a 10-block radius.