As soon as you set foot in Uruguay you are struck by the amount of people clutching a decorative handle-less cup with a long metal straw (bombilla) and a thermos tucked under one arm. This is mate (pronounced mah-tey), and to call it the national drink seems a gross understatement.
The process of making and drinking mate has many similarities to the British tea ritual; a degree of acquired taste, various available blends, the bridging of class divides and forming the backdrop to many social situations. The striking difference is the extent to which Uruguayans take it outdoors, and there is a strong emphasis on sharing an individual brew (often amongst many).
The next time I see Luis Suarez getting off the Barca team bus before a big game I’m going to be looking carefully for evidence of mate paraphernalia stashed inside his tracksuit top.
PS: Incidentally Uruguay is a fantastic country. Shouldered between the significant tourist destinations of Brazil and Argentina it is much overlooked (though ironically the Uruguayan coastal town of Punta del Este is the place for affluent Brazilians and Argentines to holiday). The country has miles of wild beaches, an interior of beautiful rolling hills complete with gauchos on horseback, and a gem of a capital city.