Years ago, on my first visit to Italy, I was taken on a Sunday drive by the Pratesis, a couple from Rignano sull'Arno, a small town in central Tuscany. They were keen to amaze me with the treasures of the area - and they did. True, I was a starry-eyed teenager, ready to marvel at anything I saw, but as we glided out of the province of Florence into that of Arezzo and on to Siena, it seemed to me that there was some special work of art in every village we passed through, a medieval abbey at every turn in the road, a fairytale castle on every hilltop.
Talk about a day to remember.
On the way home after lunch in a country trattoria, Dottore Pratesi parked in front of a tiny chapel next to a cemetery in a small town called Monterchi.
He and his wife flashed you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet smiles and we walked in. Lo and behold, hanging there before us over the high altar was the Madonna del Parto, Piero della Francesca's remarkable depiction of the Virgin Mary in her ninth month of pregnancy.
An astonishing, sublime Renaissance masterpiece - but you had to know where to find it.
Such serendipitous artistic experiences don't happen somehow in the Maremma, the swathe of south-west Tuscany spanning from the province of Livorno through that of Grosseto to Viterbo in the Lazio region, the capital of which, further south still, is the Eternal City itself, Rome. The art and landscape are in complete contrast to those of central Tuscany: more military than meditative; more challenging than charming. No, or very few, serene Madonnas or haunting crucifixions or cypress-lined avenues down here; you're more likely to come across ominous-looking watchtowers, fortified hamlets and vast expanses of wild, lonely, unpopulated countryside.
The Maremma has a history all of its own - and a very ancient one at that. Agriculture flourished under the Etruscans, who installed a system of drainage canals, but then, after centuries of neglect by the Romans, the fertile soil was gradually reduced to mosquito-ridden swampland and the area was largely abandoned. It remained an insalubrious wasteland right up to the 18th century, when the grand dukes of Austria took over and began reclamation work. After this it was forgotten about again, so much so that malaria was endemic until no more than a hundred years ago. During the Fascist period in the 1930s, the land was drained and repopulated with immigrants from other Italian regions, a project that was only really completed after World War II.
In the long intervening periods, the area was a frontier land, inhabited by the butteri - rough-and-tough Maremma cowboys who donned characteristic hats and mantles and mounted hardy Maremma horses to tend long-horned Maremma cattle and herded their sheep with Maremma sheepdogs, native breeds all. The dogs also served to ward off briganti - local brigand outlaws. The Maremma was like the Wild West without the Indians.
Latter-day butteri still ply their trade in the Parco Naturale della Maremma, just south of Grosseto. Here the landscape - Mediterranean maquis, pinewoods, swamps and grassy plains - is gloriously various. No wonder the Slow Food movement has chosen a restructured granary at Alberese, where the park offices are situated, as the headquarters for its Foundation for Biodiversity. The park, home to herons, eagles, falcons, ducks, wild boar, fallow and roe deer and all sorts of other Mediterranean flora and fauna, is a paradise for nature lovers and walkers. In summer, canoe excursions are organised along the River Ombrone, which flows through the park and into the sea by its beach, one of the most unspoiled in all of Italy, and at Alberese visitors can taste foodstuffs - cheese, cured meats, oil, wine, jams, honey and so on - produced in the park.
From the coast, the state highway 74, popularly and unimaginatively known as La Maremmana, leads over lonely horizons to more surprises. The biggest of all, the town of Pitigliano, soars out of nowhere at the last bend on the road, seemingly carved out of what the locals call the scoglio - a huge outcrop of tufa rock. In Italy, a country of many a spectacular sight, this one takes some beating. The walls of Pitigliano were built on Etruscan foundations, and the holes you see in the scoglio and in many of the surrounding hills are Etruscan tombs. The whole area is criss-crossed by the Etruscan "vie cave", or "excavated roads", also known as tagliate: deep, steep-sided trenches hewn into the tufa that served as escape routes in the event of invasion and to connect Pitigliano with other nearby towns - namely the pretty Sovana with its fascinating Etruscan necropolis and the forbidding medieval Sorano with its damp, dark lanes.
From a distance, when the dipping sun turns its walls golden brown, Pitigliano conjures up visions of biblical Babylon and its hanging gardens, but it's actually nicknamed Little Jerusalem, La Piccola Gerusalemme in Italian.
In the mid-19th century, at a time when only one per cent of the national population was Jewish, 400 Jews lived in Pitigliano, which then numbered 2200 inhabitants. Between 1938, when Mussolini's so-called racial laws entered into force, and 1943, when deportations began, their number was decimated. Signora Guastini, who came to Pitigliano from her native Arezzo more than 50 years ago to run the town's central hotel, told me that only three Jewish families are left. Her father was the station master in Arezzo in the 1940s and she remembers, as a kid, seeing cattle wagons packed with Jews en route to Germany and the concentration camps.
Edda Servi Machlin, born in Pitigliano in 1926, avoided the journey by hiding out in the hills with the partisans. Her father was the last of the town's rabbis and also the last official shochèt, or butcher. In her priceless "memoir of a vanished way of life", The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (1981), she explains how, down the centuries in Pitigliano and the other small towns in the area, typical Maremma cuisine has been enriched by the recipes of the Jewish tradition; how Christians and Jews used to swap recipes during their respective religious holidays; how, during Jewish holidays, local shops stocked up with and sold kosher food.
The local culinary repertoire thus comprises Jewish staples such as pasticcio di fegato (chopped liver), lingua salmistrata (cured ox tongue) and carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichokes). Other local specialties include sfratto, a cake made of flour, honey and walnuts and shaped like the truncheons once used to bang on the doors of Jewish houses to announce eviction in times of persecution (sfratto means "eviction", by the way). Also typical is the bollo, a ring-shaped loaf flavoured with aniseed and raisins, traditionally baked for the seven-day Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, in September-October. Both sfratto and bollo are deemed worthy of "protection" by the Slow Food movement. Under the supervision of the head rabbi of Livorno, from the pressing of the grapes to the bottling, the local cooperative La Cantina di Pitigliano continues to produce red and white kosher wine, much of which is bound for the restuarants of the old ghetto in Rome, under the label La Piccola Gerusalemme.
Ten kilometres or so over the hills in the tiny hamlet of Montemerano, a different kind of culinary delight awaits at the two-Michelin-starred Ristorante Da Caino. Here Valeria Piccini reinterprets the traditional flavours of the Maremma countryside - lots of lamb and game, fresh and stuffed pasta (pappardelle, pici, ombrichelli, tortelli), sheep's cheese, legumes, cereals and vegetables - with deftness and creativity, while her sommelier husband, Maurizio, fills diners' glasses from a cellar of 160 labels and more than 20,000 bottles.
Further north, in the walled medieval village of Suvereto, in the province of Livorno - not far from the beaches of the breathtaking Gulf of Baratti, and Piombino, and, further inland, the charming hilltop town of Massa Marittima - lives my mate Sergio Righetti, nicknamed Ghigo.
At his Trattoria Da Ghigo, in the tiny hamlet of San Lorenzo just outside Suvereto, Ghigo makes his take on acquacotta, one of the oldest and simplest of Maremma recipes. The name means "cooked water", and that's what the dish, said to have been created in the fields by the butteri, used to be: an infusion of hot water and greens and herbs such as chicory, valerian, cress, borage and wild spinach, with an egg or two dropped into the pot at the last moment. This being Italy, versions differ from village to village, and Ghigo makes the soup with masses of red onions, beet greens and other field greens, poaching the eggs separately before sliding them into the cooked mixture.
Trattoria Da Ghigo is the place to go for a proper Maremma country lunch. True to tradition, he serves an array of other hearty, stewy soups - ribollita, whose main ingredients are beans and cavolo nero; zuppa di farro, made with spelt, said to be the fuel of Roman legions on the march; and zuppa di cocchi, in which royal agaric mushrooms mingle subtly with catmint - as well as other classics.
But the pillar of Ghigo's menu is cinghiale, wild boar, served as an antipasto in the form of salumi and ham, as a lubricious, more-ish sauce with pappardelle, or in a chunky stew with olives. Wild boar is a meat for all seasons in Suvereto. "The native Maremma breed is small and agile," says Ghigo. "The cumbersome ones you see today are mostly hybrids, the result of interbreeding with the 'pachyderms' introduced from Central Europe and the Balkans in the last century."
Hunters and their dogs are a common sight on the country roads. As are the boars themselves, especially in and around the Montioni nature park on the way to Massima Marittima, where they represent a major hazard for passing cars - which invariably come off second best in the event of collisions - and ravage crops. A problem for the environment, a pleasure for the palate.
I've been going to Suvereto for 20 years and more; it's a perfect base for touring and exploring the whole Maremma area. Speaking about modern mass tourism, in a piece written in 1981 for The Sunday Times, Kingsley Amis had this to say: "One unqualified casualty of these barbarian invasions, as he could hardly have been blamed for calling them, was the old-fashioned traveller or travel writer, the sort who for decades had been getting away with calling Spain a harsh, bitter land or, if queer, sometimes when demonstrably not, going on about the civilisation of the delicate olive at the other end of the Mediterranean. The distinction of this kind of thing had been its exclusiveness or, if you prefer, its snobbery. The fellow knew the place in question, and 'intimately' was the word for how he knew it, an intimacy achieved by means of money, a superior education and, above all, a lot of spare time."
I'm neither rich nor particularly lettered nor idle, and I'm loath to use the hackneyed term "best-kept secret". But, believe me, as far as Tuscany is concerned, that's exactly what the Maremma is.