Stephen Bailey
The World's Biggest Food Fight
The World's Biggest Food Fight
Stephen Bailey

Combine 40,000 people with 120 tons of tomatoes

The centre of Bunol is quaint. White washed apartment blocks snugly enclose narrow streets, and ground floor windows offer a glimpse into rural Spanish life. It looks like the kind of place you visit on a relaxing mountain retreat. But it’s about to host the world’s biggest food fight. This takes place every August, Covid pandemic pending of course. This write up is from 2019.

Tens of thousands of people are descending on the center, fueled by sangria, anticipating the 120 tones of tomatoes about to be thrown.

Old ladies create alcoholic concoctions and sell them to the masses, €5 a pop for red wine and vodka. It’s only 8am and already the town is jam packed with people, most of them happily pissing on the floor and cheering for the mushy food.

The festival’s origins remain a mystery. Romantics argue that young children once threw tomatoes at giants, or policemen, or somebody they didn’t like. I like this rebellious viewpoint, far more intriguing than the economists who reckon it’s a local ploy to control the tomato price.

I just think it’s a town full of nutters who want to have a food fight. And why not? If you’re going to throw anything then surely tomatoes are the best choice. Soggy enough to not cause damage, messy enough to look funny, and hard enough to target somebody you don’t like in the crowd.

By 9am the crowd demands action. Cries and shouts break out. More sangria is passed over heads from the houses as it’s too tight for anyone to move. A giant Spanish ham is hooked onto a seven meter pole smeared in goose fat and washing up liquid.

Revelers have two hours to remove it. An international team take turns forming human pyramids, using t-shirts to eliminate the slime and clearing the path for mavericks to gun for glory in this tiny town near Valencia, Spain.

Boots clamber on shoulders, elbows connect with faces, and each centimeter higher brings a roar of appreciation from an increasingly drunk crowd. A skinny Japanese dude gets perilously close, agonizingly sliding back down with his fingers on the pink skin. Then a lone gunslinger shimmies up the pole, but the cheers turn to groans as another hopeful slides back down again.

I want to get close but we’re so packed in it’s impossible to breathe. Even urinating on the floor is now impossible. The purpose of this ham challenge is also a mystery, but I’ve gone past questioning motives when the 11am gunshot signifies the start of the food fight.

Four trucks inch their way through the constricting streets, crushing people against walls and depositing waist high piles of red mush for the masses to battle with. Four liters of sangria have removed any fear and I take a kamikaze approach, diving into the mess and sending fruit aimlessly through the air.

Others are more precise, hanging back and arrowing fat juicy ones towards selected prey. Ripe tomatoes thud into the side of my head and I’m forced to discard my steamed up goggles.

Thump, thump thump, more shots to the eyes and temples and through blurred vision I see a man dressed in a shark suit indiscriminately pummeling me. There’s no escape.

Each truck carries on forward, leaving supplies that come up to my knees. My clothes are red and wiping eyes with a t-shirt brings more pain. I briefly hold up hands in a sign of surrender and four ripe tomatoes judder into my chest. I’m up again, jumping into a red river and coming out with huge handfuls of mush, depositing it on anyone beside me.

As acidic juice burns into my eye balls and tomato seeds slip into unprotected tear ducts I begin to regret my headstrong approach. It’s seriously painful to have tomato juice pouring into your eyes for over an hour. But suddenly a second gunshot signals the end of the mayhem.

90 minutes have passed but it feels like five, and I lie down exhausted in a river of rouge, hair matted with fruit, clothes stained pink. Almost everyone respects the gun, lying down their bullets and congratulating each other on a battle well fought.

One chaotic madman runs forward and fires in multiple directions. He’s quickly silenced and wrestled into the tomatoey sludge.

Locals line the streets with hosepipes, washing away tomatoes from ears, shirts, and feet. Men and women, young and old, they refuse to let me past until they’ve hosed me into a slightly more respectable state.

But as I walk out I see white t-shirts and clean faces. Such huge crowds can’t fit into the narrow streets and anyone arriving late was forced to watch the action from a distance. Some even smear themselves in tomatoes just to prove that they actually turned up.

I couldn’t be in a more decimated state. No matter how many times the cheerful women throw buckets of water from the windows, I still look as pink as the streets. And no matter how much I shower back at the hotel, the smell of rotting fruit lingers for days Three days later and I’m still removing tomato seeds from my left eye.

120 tones of tomatoes, human pyramids, Spanish ham on greased poles, who would believe such a tale? Find out for yourself on the last Wednesday of every August in Bunol, Spain. Most people stay in the vibrant coastal city Valencia and take a 1 hour train journey to the fight. Arrive by 8am to get a good spot.

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