La Tomatina Festival
What’s this then?
Wellllllll, at the end of August each year, the tiny town of Buñol near Valencia, Spain plays host to the world’s largest food fight – La Tomatina festival!
The tomato fight has been a strong tradition in Buñol since the 1940s but no one is completely certain how this event began. Theories include a local food fight among friends or the result of an accidental lorry spillage.
Whatever happened to begin the tradition, it was enjoyed so much that it was repeated the next year, and the year after that. It apparently has no meaningful significance, only that IT’S BLOODY GOOD FUN!
As we queued up for our cheap sangria, we watched as a total of 6 trucks, loaded with over-ripe tomatoes, honking loudly to jeer the crowd up, made their way past us and onto the main street in the village a mile up where the event would be taking place. We had a decent amount of time to follow the way they had gone but before too long all of us were crammed into the tiny cobbled streets.
The event is now ticketed and has been since 2013 I believe in order to try to keep the enthusiastic crowd down to around a manageable 20,000. (I wonder how they spent the £1 million they made that day?) Despite the smaller crowds, I still thought that the place was heaving, with people shoulder to shoulder the whole way down the street. The weather had turned pretty cloudy on us and I was glad for the drop in temperature, as it would have been a melting pot otherwise.
Apart from the locals jeering the crowd from up above in their tarpaulin-covered apartments, chucking ice cold water on us every 5 minutes, I don’t think I saw another Spaniard, although I’m sure there were a few.
From what I could see, the festival mostly attracts the younger, party crowd: rowdy early twenty-somethings with a passion for getting pissed, going clubbing and living vicariously. What was once a LOCAL tradition to celebrate the good harvest of that summer has now turned into an international event – another attraction demonstrating a definite lack of humility amongst the crowds who are just up for a good time.
By its very nature, the festival attracts quite a bit of controversy. From food wastage to sustainability, some say how great it is that the farmer’s can sell their defective surplus to generate an income, whilst others believe it is a drain of resources in a starving world. For me, it opens up awareness about the sheer amount of waste we individually create in our lives; from pumpkins at halloween to christmas trees to bottled water, and reminds me what I can do to improve.
Apparently a large ham is placed at the top of a long pole in the town square, and the tomato fight can only begin once someone is dextrous and agile enough to claim it, but I saw no such evidence of this whilst we waited in the narrow jam-packed street for the water cannon to fire to sound the start of the fight.
As we waited, the atmosphere grew and for all its faults it really was an exciting place to be. I spoke to people from all over the world, including one guy from New York who had flown in that morning for the fight and was then flying out that same evening to somewhere else in Europe. It certainly is a sought-after festival.
As soon as the horn sounded, the adrenaline of the crowd peaked. People slapped on their goggles and zipped their phones into waterproof cases, cheering together in anticipation. But we didn’t see any tomatoes for at least 10 minutes, whilst the throwing happened 100 metres up ahead of us. Gradually, in dribs and drabs, the tomatoes arrived where we stood, first one or two, then several at a time until we were all scraping them off the ground and chucking them at each other. Soon the floor started to stain red with juice as we watched the first lorry make its journey towards us up the ram-packed street. Once it arrived, so began the REAL chaos of the food fight.
As we squished even closer together to allow the lorry to pass, we were pelted with juicy tomatoes from all angles. If you don’t have goggles on at this point, the acidity from the tomatoes makes your eyes burn and makes you question your life choices. As you’re standing there shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crowd you can’t help but think that this is just incredibly silly and hilarious. I did not stop laughing throughout the entire fight.
One by one the 6 trucks make their way down the chaotic streets, emptying their tomato loads as they go until the last one finishes its journey and all the tomatoes have been thrown and re-thrown by the riled-up crowd. The streets are now a river of tomato juice and there’s nothing left to do but get your feet in there and start dancing, flicking tomato juice everywhere. Some people lay down to make tomato angels and others skidded on their bellies through the slush.
As people started to disperse, my gratitude for the overcast weather quickly turned into a prayer for sunshine as we were left without the warmth of the crowd or the adrenaline of the fight. I would have liked to have kept playing with tomatoes but we started to shiver. Our tomato pulp stained clothes oozed from the fruit and clung to our bodies as the wind whipped through the streets, compelling us to strip down to our bikinis for the rest of the way. Kind locals were hosing down tomato-clad tourists and we stood in line, taking turns to best scrape the majority of the tomato fight off our bodies, out of our ears and in our hair, whilst others waited patiently to dip into the river to wash off the excess.
It was mission impossible trying to get completely clean of course so every one of us left back to Valencia rather smelly, with globs of tomato having dried up and now caked on our faces and smeared in our hair.
We thought we’d leave the clearing up though – apparently the acidity from the tomatoes helps to make everything squeaky clean so I didn’t feel too bad.
>>> I’m also going to make a small nod here to the wastage of this food festival: it turns out the tomatoes used in La Tomatina wouldn’t have made it into the local supermarkets as they are either already rotten or on the way to being, therefore it is made sure that only ‘defective’ tomatoes are used for the fight, else they would be thrown away anyway. Whilst this goes some way into clearing my conscious, I also think this is a great demonstration of exactly how much over-production and mass-consumption exists in Europe whilst large parts of the world are still starving. <<<