Another Tuscan summer has come to an end and I find myself staring out my office window trying, and failing, to be poetic about falling leaves and changing seasons.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sad to see August go.
August is a truly beautiful month to be in the Maremma, but it's chaotic with holidaying Italians, hot as hell and 10 times more expensive than all the other months of the year combined.
The clever traveller gives August a wide birth and if they're lucky enough to choose their vacation time, they visit the region now, while the weather is still pleasantly warm and the towns are blissfully peaceful.
September marks the beginning of the autumn harvests - the traditional festival season in the region.
All over the towns and cities, locals welcome the changing season with colourful events exalting pagan gods and their Catholic saintly counterparts.
September is also the season of wine, when the region’s winemakers compete to see who has best brew and the local cellars are thrown open for nights of drinking, eating and revelry.
So here’s my toast to the Maremma in autumn with five experiences you can’t have in any other season:
1. La Vendemmia, Maremma-wide
This is one of the Maremma’s oldest and most beloved autumn pastimes. Vendemmia
is an old Italian word for the communal harvesting of, in this case, grapes and olives. My father-in-law has a handful of olive trees, which by early September are heaving with beautifully ripe olives.
As delicious as they look, you can’t eat them. Instead we help pick them
and my father-in-law happily carts the day's efforts off to the local olive press where he and his neighbours compete to see who has the year’s finest oil. At the end of the day, we celebrate with a big family dinner.
isn’t just for locals though. Tourists come from all over Europe to help out. You can lend a hand at your local agriturismo or pop into your nearest olive grove or vineyard. It’s a great way to be a part of a hundred-year-old tradition and community celebration, and get a free lunch.
2. Manciano’s Festa delle Cantine, 7, 8 and 9 September
If you don’t particularly feel like getting your hands dirty, you can still be part of the autumnal harvest by celebrating what is easily the Fiora Valley’s biggest festival. The Festa delle Cantine
is organised by the local pro-loco and has arts and crafts markets, music and stalls selling plenty of tasty morsels.
Just a word of advice: This festival is definitely about savouring the best from local vineyards and cellars, but it’s also a chance for the home brewers to pull out their own moonshine and offer it to unsuspecting tourists. My advice is to go easy on the stuff- it’s hangover-inducingly strong.
3. Mushrooms in Monte Amiata
Autumn in the Maremma means porcini and truffles. The region is so famous for its fungi that it even featured in the TV show Heston’s Feasts
, when famous British chef Heston Blumenthal travelled all the way to Monte Amiata’s Santa Fiora to buy a very rare hallucinogenic mushroom at one of the local black markets.
Mushroom foraging is something of a Monte Amiata custom. All the locals here have a secret foraging spot they’d rather die than reveal. I don’t suggest heading out to forage for mushrooms yourself unless you know how to identify the poisonous ones, but plenty of agriturismi have mushroom gathering tours you can join.
Otherwise take advantage of the mushroom glut to eat some superb truffle and porcini pasta dishes for a third of the price you’d pay during the rest of the year.
4. Capalbio Cinema: International Short Film Festival, Capalbio, 6 October- 9 October
It’d be cliché to say this is the Cannes of the Maremma, but I’m going to anyway. Despite its size and isolated location, Capalbio’s annual autumnal cinema festival
is particularly avant guarde and sophisticated.
During the festival you can watch the best of the year’s short films chosen by a panel of Europe’s most famous producers and directors. There’s also a competition for young and emerging filmmakers. And keep your eye out for the odd celebrity. Everyone from John Malkovich to Peter Gabriel have made an appearance at this event.
5. Gustatus, Orbetello, 27 October- 1 November
One word: bottarga. You might be a little fed up with all the culinary experiences, but Gustatus
isn’t your average food and wine festival. In fact, the wine pales in comparison to the star of the show and star of the Argentario Coastline in autumn – bottarga.
Bottarga is the roe pouch of locally caught trout. It’s dried and smoked until it turns a deep coral colour. Despite its pretty price tag, it’s known as ‘poor man’s caviar’ and is shaved over spaghetti. The flavour is smoky and rich and surprisingly un-fish like.
During Gustatus, bottarga is plentiful, cheap and prepared by the city’s best cooks. The festival also has a luxury and vintage car parade that is so great it deserves a quick plug too.