Southern Tuscany is a wild place. For centuries, the bright young things of Florence and Siena kept their distance. Malaria-plagued bogs make for terrible inspiration and it’s hard to pen a masterpiece if you won’t make it to 30. So the locals carved their own traditions out of the harsh landscape. The called their home, the Maremma, a name with Latin roots that means ‘swamp’. They shunned far-off Renaissance masters and Medici patrons and shaped their culture around the contadini, the farmers. They told stories of pirate ships and red-eyed witches and celebrated the men who could bring the largest game to the autumn table. They respected the forests, fields and seas that provided everything and applauded the poets who sang of famine and told dirty jokes in the same breath. And they still do today.
One of the province’s most beloved traditions has everything to do with criminals. The brigands of the Maremma are legendary and Domenico Tiburzi is their king. Almost two centuries after his death, he hangs on the lips of Maremman youths as their own Robin Hood, except he stole from everyone and shared nothing. By all historical accounts, Tiburzi was a violent man, but he represents the survival spirit of all Maremmani. He lived the hardest decades, but he never gave up, and that has made him immortal.
Il brigantaggio is honoured in almost every Maremman festival, but save the date for May 1 if you want to hear the stories of roadside raids, peasant revolts and fabled shootouts. The Canto del Maggio is an annual celebration told in ottava rima, a style of poetry that the locals reserve for folklore.
Folklore is at the heart of another Maremman tradition, that of cowboys. It’s a long way from the Wild West, but Tuscany’s butteri are just as fierce. It’s said they beat Buffalo Bill in a rodeo competition and the American legend fled before he could pay his promised debts. But these days, they’re a dying breed.
Few youth are drawn to a solitary life, wandering the province without cell phone reception. Their cattle, the vacca Maremmana, can’t compete with its farm-bred cousin either. It doesn’t make for a good steak, but it’s what the locals love. The Maremmani have always been hunters and gathers and even their livestock lives in the wild.
You can still see some butteri in Alberese, just outside of Grosseto. They stand out with their broad hats and long staffs as they walk through the sunrise ritual that has always preceded their journey into the countryside.
If you’re not a morning person, skip the paddock and head straight to the plate for what is not-so-secretly every Maremmano’s favourite tradition, barbecuing. Italians aren’t famous for their barbecues, but the Maremma is the Deep South of Tuscany, so it’s seems appropriate that they charcoal anything they can get their hands on.
La grigliata is better than a pasta dish any day and you’ll have plenty of chances to try it. Every sagra, every restaurant, every family gathering starts with a fire and ends with plate of too many steaks. On the coast, they grill pesce povera, poor man’s fish, as you move inland, they’ll cook you skewers of wild boar, while in the mountains, you’ll get chestnuts and not much else. Just don’t expect fancy barbecues with all the gadgets. The Maremman barbecue is handmade out of an old drum or a lot of rusted steel. It’s fed with oaks and cedars and everything is served well done. But it’s a taste you’re not soon to forget because it is so not Tuscan.
Like everything the Maremmani do, it is their own. The Maremma is part of Tuscany in name alone. Where the region’s cities have art and architecture, the Maremma has humble welcomes and honest fare. The malaria is gone, but the traditions remain.