We were in Alentejo with Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology, when he suggested that we visit one of his former students, Joaquim Saragga Leal. Joaquim used to run Taberna Sal Grosso in Lisbon but moved to Évora to be closer to his roots.
We arrived late because we got lost. Evora is a labyrinthine Roman city with narrow streets that hide its secrets from global positioning systems. But, eventually, we found the Taberna de Santo Humberto. Joaquim tells us that it was once a tavern called O Berto that served wine and simple food. Then, some well-to-do women took it over, serving elegant food that became one of Évora’s culinary references. They turned O Berto into Hubert. For good luck they canonized him, so the place became the Saint Hubert Restaurant. Joaquim kept the saint but brought back the tavern, both in name and attitude.
He studied mechanical engineering in London and worked as an engineer but, on the side, he always cooked for friends. One day, he returned to Alentejo to help his grandmother run a famous wine estate, Herdade dos Coelheiros. He joined a wine program in Bordeaux and then went to culinary school. When he finished, he enrolled in a master of gastronomic sciences program, taking classes with professor Malfeito.
Joaquim tells us that he wants to cook more rustic, more affectionate food, recover old, forgotten recipes, cook what his grandmother used to make, and what Alentejo taverns used to serve. “A meal at my restaurant consists of many small plates meant to be shared because the art of sharing is close to the art of conversation,” he says.
After this long introduction, he asked: “what would you like to eat?” Manuel answered without hesitation: “the choice is up to you.” Joaquim grimaced and replied, “this sounds like another exam.” “Indeed!” agreed Manuel.
We ran out of culinary adjectives during the meal. Cornish hens in escabeche sauce were mouthwatering, the liver duck was amazing, the bacon and garlic marvelous, the codfish tongs outstanding, and the frog legs Bulhão Pato style fantastic.
After a brief interlude, Joaquim brought two delicious salads, one with watercress and orange and the other with tomato, figs, and hydrated prosciutto. Then, there were incredible croquettes made from beef tongue and Osso Bucco, crispy codfish cakes, and exquisite stewed bone marrow.
The dessert was a cake made from cheese, the traditional Abade de Priscos pudding, a local cake called padinha, and a chocolate mousse seasoned with salt.
After this culinary marathon, Joaquim arrived holding a tray with coffee cups and glasses of pennyroyal liqueur. Then he asked, “What grade did I get?” “A+!” we shouted.
Taberna de Santo Humberto is located at Rua da Moeda, 39, Évora, tel. 913 198 215.