Ian Dell’Aquila is a Porteño at heart. A Porteño, literally a “port person,” is from the Rio de la Plata region of South America. This includes a large area surrounding the ports at Buenos Aires and Rosario in Argentina and extending across the river to the port at Montevideo, Uruguay. Almost all Porteños drink yerba mate. Yerba mate is as much a source of identity and pride to the Porteños as their unique Castellano Rioplatense dialect of the Spanish language.
Dell’Aquila was born in the U.S., but when he was about nine years old his family moved to Buenos Aires. He completed his schooling in South America and officially became a Porteño. Then in 1999 the Porteño with a U.S. Passport returned to the United States.
Ian pronounces his name Yohn – like John would sound if it started with a “Y” instead of a “J” – the way it’s pronounced in his ancestral homeland of Rosario, Argentina where his father was born. The thriving port city of Rosario lies about 185 miles up river from Buenos Aires. It is actually situated on the Paraná River, a tributary to the Rio de la Plata Delta.
I first met Ian at a Southern California car show. He was helping two friends from South America operate a booth that sold Argentinian Empanadas. As I placed my order, I noticed a mate gourd and bombilla on the counter and this led to a few quick yerba mate anecdotes. But, when I observed that other customers were getting annoyed with our exuberance, I left my card and moved on. A week or so later, Ian sent me an e-mail that led to a visit and an interview.
Ian shares an apartment with his girlfriend Carolina and her sister Leticia. Like Ian’s family, Carolina and her family are also from Rosario, Argentina. Their apartment is in Venice Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles that is home to many South American immigrants. Ian laments: “A lot of Argentines get nostalgic when they immigrate.” Perhaps this is why their whole neighborhood is glued together by Latin American-themed markets, bakeries, restaurants and night clubs.
As we shared stories, Ian told me of his early experiences with yerba mate. His grandmother prepared it by heating a few spoonfuls of yerba in a pot of water and then straining it into a cup – sometimes adding milk or sugar. When he was older, he would sip mate from a gourd with his friends. Its gentle caffeine stimulus and the subtle sense of well-being he felt made him an enthusiastic user. He doesn’t care for the idea of tea bags however.
Ian proudly showed me his collection of mate gourds and cups, which included calabash, wood, ceramic and metal. One of his favorites is a small metal cup that he called a “mechanic’s mate.” So called because the metal does not absorb grease from the mechanic’s hands the way a traditional calabash gourd does. Eventually the grease will permeate the gourd and contaminate the yerba.
We both admired the intricate designs on this very special mate. It represents poems about the legendary Argentine gaucho, Martin Fierro.
Next, he showed me his prized “mate dispenser” hanging on the wall in his kitchen. The wooden canister has a glass window in front so you can view the level of yerba inside. We both laughed when he told me about filling one side with yerba sin palo and the other side with yerba con palo. Look closely and see if you can spot the separation down the middle. This is still funny to me!
You might find similar dispensers for sale on the Internet, but they won’t have the artistic fileteado painting on them. This unique style of painting is the South American equivalent to “pinstriping” that was popular on hotrods in the U.S. in the 1950′s and 60′s. In Argentina this decorative art is painted on buses, taxis, signs and on one’s most prized possessions. Ian had his yerba mate dispenser painted while attending the annual Buenos Aires Tango Convention a few years ago.
We had enjoyed a pleasant conversation for almost an hour and then Ian invited me to share a mate. Of course I agreed.
His favorite brand is Nobleza Gaucha from Argentina and he drinks it amargo which means “bitter” or unsweetened. For this occasion, he chose a wooden mate and a Uruguayan spoon-type bombilla. He heated the water in a traditional Argentine kettle using filtered water and insisted the filtered water makes a difference in the taste. He listened to the sound of the water “hissing” in his kettle and knew when it was ready just by the sound. We sipped and chatted for an hour or so – one of the secrets to a good mate experience is taking the time to enjoy it.
Ian says: “I have mate at least four times a day.” Typically, this is first thing in the morning; again in mid-morning; after lunch; and finally, about 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. The last one he usually shares with Carolina as they recount the day’s events. He confesses: “I get grumpy when I don’t have my mate.”
You know what? So do I.