It’s the last Wednesday in August. Riotous behaviour breaks out in the sleepy Spanish town of Buñol, as crowds of 20,000 increase the population threefold, and a sea of red runs through streets lined with almond and olive trees.

There’s nothing sinister about this pueblo’s new colour scheme. It’s simply a byproduct of La Tomatina, Spain's famous tomato-slinging festival. Far from being politically motivated, this revolution — now an annual, ticketed event — is driven by something far more powerful and persuasive: FUN. Because hurling tomatoes at friends and strangers for 60 minutes of wild abandon leaves more than just seeds and sauce stains on your face.

Revellers at La Tomatina.
Revellers at La Tomatina.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that the beginnings of Europe’s biggest food fight may not be so frivolous.

Ambiguity shrouds the origins of La Tomatina, but there’s argument to suggest pelting pulp at one another in fruity battle has more complex, anarchic roots. The most widely accepted theory dates the event to the mid 1940s. Supposedly, during a parade to honour Buñol’s patron saint, San Luis Berltran, a fracas broke out when a performer’s giant headpiece was knocked off and he scolded a group of mischievous children. Seeking available ammunition against the performer, the youngsters retaliated by raiding stalls of a nearby grocery store.

Amateur historian Miguel Sierra Galarza has a more profound explanation of events, which is connected to the dictatorship that followed the Spanish Civil War: “This village was against Franco,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1995. “Throwing tomatoes at the priest and mayor was a way to protest against authority.”

Indeed, as delicious as they are spread out on slices of toast with olive oil and garlic, tomatoes have also historically been used as a tool to express displeasure and distaste.

Legend erroneously suggests they were commonplace in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but — since they originate in the New World — the plump red bombs didn’t appear in English recipe books until 1752. A New York Times article from 1883, however, does talk about an actor being “demoralized by tomatoes” following a poor performance.

So how did a squishy fruit (often mistaken for a vegetable) become a popular protest food?

“My guess is that people throw food because it is cheap, visible, and easily accessible,” Andrew Gelman, a political science professor at Columbia University, told Bon Appétit in 2014. “Tomatoes are inexpensive, easy to throw, and make a satisfying splat.”

Whether the weapon of choice in that first La Tomatina was thrown in protest or not, it left a lasting impression on more than just stained pavement and ruined clothing, as the fight became part of the town’s annual patron saint celebrations.

But there were bumps in the road. In the 1950s, fearing unfettered fun, political dissent, or a dangerous marriage of the two, Bunol’s mayor banned the event. Revellers ignored his orders, which led to arrests. In 1957, residents upset at the festival’s continued absence held a grand tomato burial in memoriam of their beloved event. Sombre funeral marches were played as the town gathered in grand procession, following behind a large coffin with a giant tomato inside.

These were bleak times for Buñol — and for Spain. But the tomatoes —and, arguably, the values they represented — were never forgotten.

In the 1970s, once Franco had left power, La Tomatina returned to its full squishy red glory. By that time, the authorities were on side; in 2002 it was declared a Festival of International Tourist Interest by Spain’s Department of Tourism.

The tomato had become a symbol of defiance and celebration. Most importantly, it had put a small, otherwise insignificant, cement-making town — one that doesn’t even produce tomatoes — on the map.

Some claim an annual dousing of tomato juice keeps the streets clean; others champion the beauty benefits of smearing antioxidant-packed fruit on skin. But political and aesthetic importance aside, La Tomatina is good for the soul.

Any anger and frustration originally associated with the event have long since dissipated, and hurling — or being hit — by harmless red fruit is now simply about having fun.

And who could object to that? Viva la red revolution!

Getting There

Take our La Tomatina Festival tour and see this unique festival for yourself. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.