The day that Spain sees red

10th March 2000 at 00:00
FROM ITS origins in the highlands of western South America to the bottles of Messrs Heinz, the tomato has travelled far in the past 500 years. The conquistadores who brought the tomato back from Mexico in 1519 - and who mistakenly thought it poisonous - called it Moor's apple. Later it was known as stinking golden apple or even wolf peach (Lycopersicon) by botanists; more affectionately, love apple.

The love apple develops a bit of a bite in the annual Tomatina festival in Bu$ol, eastern Spain, where every year more than 20,000 people throw 100 tonnes of fruit at each other on the last Wednesday in August.

But is the tomato a fruit? In 1887 the US Supreme Court ruled that:

"Botanically speaking, they are the fruit of a vine . . . but in the common language of people . . . these are vegetables." The tomato has gone on to become the third most consumed vegetable in the US: cucumbers can hardly catch-up. In Bu$ol, the tomatois eaten in huge paellas on Tuesday night, splattered all over the streets on Wednesday, and picked from the fields on Thursday. Locally-grown pro duce is not used in the Tomatina fight; it is too expensive.

Reportedly established in 1945, Tomatina has grown from either a small-town anti-Franco demonstration or an amicable food fight between friends (you can take your pick of explanations) to a week-long fiesta involving dances and drinking as well as the hour-long splat-fest. The trick, apparently, to savouring Tomatina to the full is twofold: before throwing, first squash or pierce your tomato, and second, aim at the opposite sex.

It gets quite saucy in Bu$ol. Few people wear the protective goggles favoured by seasoned fighters to deflect the crimson haze; many wear extremely little. For one hour on a hot Sunday morning in Spain, everyone says "Tomato" - and no one calls the whole thing off.

Victoria Neumark

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