La Tomatina, Spain’s tomato festival, is unusual because unlike most food festivals it has no religious significance. It’s not a harvest festival and there are neither any pagan origins. There is, after all, no patron saint of tomatoes.
La Tomatina is simply a time for tomato throwing. Taking place on the last Wednesday in August, the tomato fight lasts for around an hour, from 11am until the gun signal calls a halt to proceedings. The tomato throwing is actually the best known part of a larger festival that runs for the entire week.
It is held in the small town of Bunol, which is located about 40 kilometres from Valencia, in the east of Spain. Bunol is a smallish town, with a population of around 9000 people, and a history of some distinction. It was settled in pre-historic times, overtaken by the Romans, then the Arabs who arrived on the Iberian peninsula in 711. In 1245, it was re-conquered by Christian forces fighting for King Jaime I. In other words, its history is like countless other small towns in Spain.
The origins of La Tomatina have been obscured by history. The first tomato fight was probably in 1945, and the range of explanations proceeding this are extensive. Some say it started as a friendly fight between friends. Others say it was a gesture against Franco. Another account suggests it began during a parade, when one of the parade characters accidentally knocked over a vegetable stall, and some local lads threw tomatoes in retaliation. Another version is that some young people in the carnival crowd got into a fight in 1945, started throwing tomatoes at each other, and did the same the following year. Maybe police broke it up, maybe not. The mostly likely version is that some kind of tomato-throwing row broke out during the parade associated with the festival of the town’s patron saint, San Luis Bertran, and once the tomato throwing was repeated the following year the tradtion was born.
In fact, La Tomatina was banned for a couple of years in the 1950s by the authorities, but was reinstated after a public outcry displaying how its popularity had rapidly grown.
Today it attracts huge crowds. Latest figures suggest that at least 20,000 people and probably more converge on Bunol for the event. Most of them come only for the day, and take the train or bus back to Valencia as there is a limit in Spain to how many people can stay in the small town.
There are festivities during the rest of the week, but the Wednesday morning is always a time for preparation. Shopkeepers cover windows and doors against the onslaught. Laden trucks are parked near the main square, yet many of the side streets become involved too.
The tomatoes are delivered by the lorry-load from elsewhere in Spain, since tomatoes are not grown in the area. Bunol and the surrounding area are better known for rice, pork dishes (including a range of sausages and cured meats), and vegetables. Paella is a local favorite, and around here it might include green vegetables and snails.
In the midst of the anarchy of Wednesday morning precarious rules are formulated to minimise harm.
Participants are expected to stay well clear of lorries. Another requirement is that tomatoes must be squishy not firm when thrown as the aim is for mess not damage. Visitors may not tear one another’s clothing and must also finish throwing when the signal sounds.
Suggested clothing is an old T-shirt, shorts, and protective glasses or goggles. The actual tomato hurling does not last long – an hour, perhaps more, until a gunshot marks the end. By then, everyone is soaked with tomato juice and seeds, the streets are slippery, and once the clean-up takes place, it is time for lunch.
The streets are hosed down carefully whiole the participants head for the river or a shower. It is actually very important for participants to clean themselves properly, because tomatoes can be a potential skin irritant. Throwing them might be fun, but the aftermath of rotting tomatoes is not.
Food fights are usually poorly regarded throughout the world. With the throwing of food considered bad manners, or, in the case of custard pies, comic. Yet in La Tomatina, it’s an occasion for controlled folly. Perhaps not surprisingly, tomato dishes do not feature on many menus at this time.