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Pass the gourd and drink in a national treasure

Fernanda Robledo sips a batch of yerba mate from a wooden gourd. Fernanda Robledo sips a batch of yerba mate from a wooden gourd. (WESSEL KOK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe correspondent / February 18, 2007

SALTA , Argentina -- In this bustling city and popular tourist destination, there is no shortage of mainstream souvenir and artisan shops.

But Plaza de Almas, or "Plaza of the Souls," has a different feel, one of social consciousness and political progressiveness. The employees are young, the clothing is made by Argentine designers, and the artisan offerings of pottery, textiles, and jewelry are more contemporary and less expensive than in many local stores.

But what really sets Plaza de Almas apart is its invitation to the world to come sit in its cafe in early evening and share a gourd of free yerba "mate" (pronounced MAH-tay), a tea made from the dried, chopped leaf of a holly plant.

Preparing and drinking mate, mixed in a metal or wooden gourd and drunk through a straining straw, is a centuries-old ritual that transcends class lines. But finding Argentina's national beverage at a cafe or restaurant is a rare treat.

"We want people to feel comfortable here, " said our server , Fernanda Robledo, 29. "Mate can't be denied to anyone."

As she prepared our gourd, Robledo patiently answered our questions about mate's cultural history and drinking etiquette.

Did we enjoy the bitter broth as we passed the gourd around? Culturally, very much so, but we couldn't say we planned to drink it at home.

Plaza de Almas, Pueyrredon 6, Salta, Argentina, 0387-4228933, plazadealmas.com . Free mate 5:30-8:30 p.m. daily.

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