From Liguria, we headed down the coast toward the Maremma, Tuscany's southernmost region, and the Grosseto province. Ironically, when we later returned from Italy to New York, "Maremma" seemed to be everywhere in the guise of the much-hyped opening of Cesare Casella's new restaurant of the same name. A press release for Maremma (the restaurant) traded on the region's reputation as Italian "cowboy country":
Named for a region in Southwest Tuscany regarded as Italy’s Wild West, Maremma is Casella’s tribute to the Italian Spaghetti Western and features a whimsical melding of Tuscan and American cowboy fare. "Maremma and the American West are so alike that I thought it would be fun to bring the foods together to create a 'Spaghetti Western' cuisine," says Casella.
Throughout history, Maremma, a beautiful, rugged terrain on the Southern coast of Tuscany, has been a haven for bandits and i butteri, Tuscan cowboys. The region was also part of the inspiration behind many of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s that were Casella’s favorites to watch growing up. Even today, Italian cowboys roam the vast land with their big, sturdy maremmano horses, herding long-haired maremmano bulls.
We didn't see any Tuscan cowboys, much less long-haired bulls on our visit. And while the sparsely settled rural area surrounding Grosetto has a quiet, frontier feel (if you can see past the terraced vineyards and olive groves), the Wild West analogy seems a little anachronistic, at least based on our experience. After all, as we exited the main highway, we were greeted by a huge billboard advertising "Golf and Cashmere," and the countryside is studded with the kinds of agriturismos familiar to any visitor to Chianti. Megalo-restaurateur Alain Ducasse has thrown his hat into the ring by opening an over-the top resort hotel to woo elite travelers to the region.
The landscape is marked by low-lying plains, formerly swamplands, interrupted by tiny, steeply pitched hill towns, a number of which contain ancient remnants of Etruscan villages. In greater abundance than either cashmere or cowboys are huge fields of sunflowers. Rows upon rows of the sun worshippers, standing tall and upright (as well as the occasional crop that's withered and bowed), strikingly illuminate the terrain with their brightly colored petals.
Another remarkable thing about this part of Tuscany is that while it resembles the north in so many ways -- the hill towns, the olive trees, the vineyards -- it's only a hop, skip, and a jump away from coastal resorts such as Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano. The nearest to us was the village of Castiglione della Pescaia, a walled hill town poised on the very edge of the coast, whose winding, narrow streets descend precipitously to a bustling small harbor, promenade, and sandy, umbrella-lined beaches.