At first glance, the rural community of Palmeira is reminiscent of a small Midwestern town complete with dusty roads and gardens. Lazy mornings are spent on the front porch, where passersby are greeted by name and with a smile. Set against the backdrop of a setting sun, the rising smoke from neighboring homes and the braying of horses in the distance bring to mind a simpler time, an idyllic setting for ranchers and cowboys alike.
Palmeira, like many small cities in the mountainous region of Santa Catarina, demonstrates the cultural and geographic diversity which has made Brazil unforgettable. Yet the only image of surf, sand, and samba one can see in Palmeira are the characteristic palm trees which give the city its name. The cold climate offers a rather frigid awakening for those who believe that the country is home to only tropical temperatures. The sturdy palmeirenses, however, have three weapons against the wintry weather: multiple sweaters, wood stoves, and the legendary cups of chimarrão, which have warmed generations of gaúchos, the settlers who established ranches and rodeos in the southernmost stretches of the Brazilian landscape.
Huddled around a wood stove, Matheus Melo boils a kettle of water and prepares the chimarrão. Melo is a second-year medical student at the University of Planalto Catarinense and has earned a reputation for being an enthusiast of the brewed beverage. He chuckles at the difficult notion of recalling his first sip of chimarrão, ingrained as it is in gaúcho culture. “Do you remember when you drank water for the first time?”
Chimarrão is made by pouring hot water onto erva-mate, the plant which gives the tea its distinctive flavor. Unlike most teas, however, chimarrão is served using a bomba and a cuia. Made from silver or stainless steel, bombas are straws fitted with filters that prevent the brewed liquid and herbs from mixing. The cuia is a hollow calabash gourd often featuring traditional carvings and designs.
The tradition of drinking chimarrão has become an art form for the residents of southern Brazil. Coupled with an alternating blend of cool and hot water, the proper placement of the herbs in the cuia ensures that the resulting tea is flavorful and goes down smoothly.
Recognized as “mate” or “cimarrón” depending on the region, chimarrão is enjoyed in various South American countries like Argentina and Uruguay. The traditional erva-mate used in the drink was first gathered by the Guaraní and Tupí tribes in southern Brazil and Paraguay. Spanish and Portuguese settlers popularized the indigenous tea as a refreshing infusion of caffeine. With a legacy for being large consumers of chimarrão, Brazil and Argentina cultivate the most erva-mate whilst Syria imports the most erva-mate per year.
The Brazilian love affair with chimarrão manifests itself in the Parque Histórico do Mate, a branch of the Museu Paranaense funded by the state of Paraná. Visitors to the state park learn about the history of the production and transportation of erva-mate, which at one point represented 85 percent of the local economy.
Being a rich source of vitamins A, C, and E, chimarrão provides a variety of health benefits commonly associated with teas containing significant levels of antioxidants. Green tea may be losing the battle of beverages when it comes to producing the most medicinal effects. “Polyphenolic compounds found in Mate tea differ significantly from green tea because Mate tea contains [a] high concentration of chlorogenic acid and no catechins” Dr. Elvira de Mejia, a food science expert from the University of Illinois, said in a comparative study conducted with chimarrão. Chlorogenic acid is an anti-carcinogen that promotes cardiovascular health.
“Chimarrão is popular because it is a hot and energetic drink and is traditional here in the south,” Lissandra Momm, a junior chemical engineer at the Federal University of Santa Maria, said. “We continue to drink chimarrão because it is a good beverage in the winter or summer and because it is also a group activity.”
The importance of chimarrão to the gaucho culture in Brazil, however, certainly outweighs its purported health properties. “Generally a group of people join together in a roda de chimarrão to converse and to share the drink which is placed in a cuia shared by everyone” Momm said. The communal nature of the drink encourages a sense of unity and inclusion since the cuia is offered to both family members and strangers.
Expecting to study abroad in France next year, Melo has already made plans to purchase several bags of erva-mate in order to brew chimarrão in Europe. “Chimarrão makes me feel like I’m from the South and not from another region of Brazil,” Melo said. “It gives me a southern identity.”