Every year, Rome’s confraternity of butchers celebrate Palm Sunday at a tiny piazza behind Campo de’ Fiori, giving out traditional Easter breakfast to anyone who comes by. Welcome to Rome’s secret butcher’s club.
Last Sunday – Palm Sunday morning – I was in line in the tiny Piazza della Quercia waiting to be served breakfast by a bunch of butchers. The woman to my left told me to push my six-year-old up front, while the man on my right reminded me to burn my egg shells over a flame to prevent bad luck. The crowd hushed as a procession of white-frocked priests walked by with huge palm fronds.It was the sort of small town gathering that seems out of place in the shadow of Campo de’ Fiori, one of the busiest squares in Rome.
Campo de’ Fiori is busy and chaotic but the neighbourhood, full of side streets, local shops and curious neighbours, hides the headquarters of nearly five-hundred year old Confraternità di Maccellai di Roma (Confraternity of the Butchers of Rome). For more than three decades, the butchers have hosted a Palm Sunday brunch in the tiny Piazza della Quercia to give back to their friends, clients and neighbours.
The Confraternity is an unassuming association representing nearly all of Rome’s more than 300 butchers. For nearly five centuries, they’ve quietly collected dues, acquired property and subsidized fellow butchers in need. Imagine the Templar Knights with cleavers, meat hooks and a good shank. Since 1532, the butchers have met monthly to discuss, well, butchery issues, but rarely does the confraternity promote itself publicly.
When my daughter asked for an extra egg – and I asked to know more about the confraternity– Riccardo, a butcher-cum-civil servant, brought us past the police guards and through a 16th-century palazzo to a kitchen filled white-jacketed butchers. They were slicing colomba (Easter cake), porchetta (seasoned roast pork) and salami, garnishing dishes with hard-boiled and chocolate eggs. They also dished out platefuls of coratella, a traditional Roman dish of lamb offals and artichokes. It’s a breakfast that’s not for the faint-of-heart.
After breakfast, a butcher from the San Giovanni neighbourhood, Bruno Babusci, led me upstairs to the Confraternity’s inner sanctum. It’s a private, beautifully frescoed room, with a 17th-century Sebastiano Conca painting that was discovered when a Prosecco cork popped a hole in the covered ceiling.
Confraternity president Roberto Dionisi pointed out the marble inscriptions that detail the butchers’ benefactions from the 16th-century to the present, and gave me a glimpse into the upper story of the butchers’ church, Santa Maria della Quercia. He showed me things that only butchers had seen before.
When I asked why, he replied, it’s important to share what you can.
A version of this article appeared in BBC Travel.