Apprentice Yerba Mate Harvester For a Day (Brazil) May 04 2016, 0 Comments
Small town of Ilópolis, Brazil: On yet another icy fresh morning in the cradle of yerba mate country I was preparing for a day out on the farm. I checked my camera batteries while my hostess, Ariana stacked an earlier-than-usual morning chimarrão (Brazilian mate). The coals in the cast iron stove were still hot from the previous night so she decided to stoke the fire for our hot water instead of using the electric kettle. That's what I call gaucha style. We had fresh erva-mate (yerba mate) from a local ervateira (yerba mate factory) called, Ximango and enjoyed a few rounds with the rest of the family who were suddenly up and about. Soon after we dragged our warming bones away from the fire and headed down valley to their uncle Darci's yerba mate farm where I learned some interesting facts about Ilópolis and spent the day as an apprentice tarefeiro (yerba mate harvester)
Apparently Ilópolis is the district with the highest concentration of yerba mate farmers in Brazil with some of the oldest known plantations. Two of Brazil's most famous erva-mate brands are based there: Ximango and Rei Verde, but like most yerba mate farmers Darci is a simple man who grew up on the very land which he farms to this day. He does not have a factory to produce the final product and he delivers the harvest to the nearest ervateira. He told me something interesting about Ilópolis... he said, "the reason Ilópolis has some of the oldest yerba mate farms is because we can't grow anything else on these slopes." The area is a spectacular mountain range covered in a fur coat of lush jungle. " When other farmers cut down their trees during times of low prices we bite the bullet and see through the tough times", he continued. I later learned that almost everyone in Ilópolis farms yerba mate and that it has almost always been that way since its colonisation by Italian families (mostly) in 1905.
The Cream of the Crop
The first thing that Darci wanted to show me was the difference between premium (nativa) and regular (tradicional) erva-mate. He took me to an area of the farm where there were many ancient wild yerba mate trees (never planted) surrounded by vastly younger planted yerba mate trees. My immediate observation was that the younger ones were clearly smaller and that their leaves were lighter in colour. "Correto", he said, "the darker the leaf, the more mature and the more valuable the erva is, but let me show you how to identify the real cream of the crop"... Darci demonstrated: the louder the leaf cracks as you squash it between your fingers the better the erva. He squashed a few selected leaves from the nativa tree and they cracked beautifully like breaking ice. This was followed by him doing the same with young yellowish leaves from a planted tree and...nada...nothing, no crack. Apparently the more mature the tree the more suave (affable) the flavour of the final product. In Brazil suave erva-mate is generally considered premium and being in low supply the nativa erva-mate fetches a better price.
Darci took me to the slopes where he had several hectares of planted yerba mate. The planted type is cut in such a way so as to maximise yields and harvest accessibility. Darci showed me how they harvest it: the tree usually has 5-10 secondary branches stemming from the trunk. 70-80% of these are harvested by hand-sawing them off or cutting with a branch cutter. The harvested branches have tertiary stems on which the leaves grow. Those same tertiary stems get plucked off by hand, stacked into bags and loaded onto a truck. Darci says that though not always possible, it is best practice to harvest from the trees only once per year during the coldest months. Ideally, after the first frost (June - Aug). Apparently the leaves are most mature at this time and it minimises the harm done when the tree is transpiring the least.
We ended the tour with a massive churrasco (braai/barbaque) done in the gaucho style with gaucho espetadas. Delicia!
Thanks for reading.
Muito obrigado Ariana e Darci por umas memorias que nunca esquecerei. Abraço.