Unless you’ve experienced La Tomatina yourself, it’s hard to fully comprehend the sheer insanity of it all: 30,000 revellers, 140 tonnes of tomatoes, and 60 minutes of all-out war. It all adds up to what is probably the most infantile hour you’ll enjoy in your entire adult life. The modus operandi is simple: throw as many tomatoes as you can get your hands on at as many people as you possibly can. That includes anyone who is standing still, running away, falling down, turning around or bending over. Get the picture?

There are no allies in this war: it’s every man for himself and there’s nowhere to hide. As a survivor, I can tell you that the only certainty is that at the end of it you will look like you’ve just walked off the blood-splattered set of a horror flick. Oh, and you’ll be picking tomato seeds from your ears for the next week.

La Tomatina is actually the final celebration of a much more civilised week-long festival of music, dance, fireworks and food (eating, not throwing). But in much the same way as Pamplona’s iconic (read insane) running of the bulls steals the international spotlight at the town’s annual Fiesta de San Fermín, it’s the tomato fight that draws thousands of thrill-seekers wanting a piece of the anarchic action.

Before chaos reigns (and salsa rains), however, there is a contrasting sense of order to the affair. As the eager tomato tossers stream into the heart of the old town and take their place in the firing line (which is pretty much everywhere), pleasantries are exchanged, jokes are told and jovial chatter fills the air, much like a social gathering anywhere.

Then, before the customary noon kick-off, a ham is placed atop a greased pole in the tiny town square, Plaza del Pueblo. It’s a long-standing rule that the fight cannot begin until someone manages to climb the pole and pull the ham down. But once a sure-footed soul finally does manage it, law and order goes out the window.

The ham barely touches the ground before a rocket is fired, battlecries erupt across the town and tomato fight fever takes hold. A convoy of trucks loaded with the red, ripe bounty starts rolling into town. On board the trucks, official tomato throwers relentlessly pelt the retaliatory crowd with crimson grenades, only holding fire to hang on when what’s left of the load is dumped onto the street. This typically triggers a mad scramble as everyone tries to arm themselves with fresh projectiles.

The ferocity of the fight cools when the first serve of tomatoes has disintegrated into an unthrowable paste, but the respite lasts only as long as it takes the next truck to forge its way through the crowd with a fresh round of ammunition. Only after six truckloads have been exhausted, which is usually just over an hour, is the final ceasefire called, signalled by the crack of a second rocket fired over the town.

And with that, tomatoes (or, by this stage, handfuls of tomato purée) are dropped, the fallen are helped to their feet and the battle-ravaged Tomatina troops start to move out, dripping and grinning from ear to ear, bound for the showers, bars and post-fight street parties that beckon.

As for the intimidating slimy carnage that’s left behind, it’s all in a tomato-fighting day’s work for the Buñol locals, who immediately set about restoring their homes and businesses to a presentable condition – for another 365 days at least. And judging by the smiles on their faces as they go about it, you get the feeling that they secretly relish the fact that their hometown gives people the chance to paint the town red like no other place can.

Other odd encounters with food
Night of the Radishes
Oaxaca, Mexico (December 23)
If you like your vegetables with a side of culture, you’ll dig Radish Night. Celebrated every Christmas for more than a century, the event combines folk art and agriculture in a hotly contested radish-sculpting contest (there’s a grand prize of 12,000 pesos (US$1200) up for grabs. The result is an inimitable array of ornate radish masterpieces, ranging from small animals and human figures to depictions of the Nativity scenes. Don’t mess around, though, the festival lasts only a few hours as radishes have a limited lifespan as art.

Interstate Mullet Toss
Pensacola, Florida, US (every April)
We’re talking the fish here, not bad hairdos, and apparently there’s quite an art to throwing them. Just ask the thousands of hopefuls who line up each year to lob about 300 pounds of the useless, bottom-feeding, salt-water fish from Florida into Alabama (the FloraBama road house that hosts the event sits right on the state borders). For an entry fee of US$18, you get a mullet to throw, a T-shirt fishy business.

Cheese Rolling
Cooper’s Hill, Gloucester, England
(spring bank holiday Monday)
You’d be hard pushed to find a cheesier event than this one. Hundreds of fromage-frenzied runners line up at the top of a very steep hill in the English countryside to chase a 7-8lb wheel of the region’s best (Double Gloucester) to the bottom. The first person to reach the foot of the hill (preferably breaking or spraining something) wins the cheese.

Great Fruitcake Toss
Manitou Springs, Colorado, US
(first week in January)
The humble fruitcake takes centre stage in this soiree, which doesn’t so much pay homage to it as abuse it in almost every way possible. It’s also obligatory to mock the person who gave it to you. A strictly BYO affair, it sees the cakes hurled, hammered, catapulted, crushed – any method that will destroy them, basically. There’s also a fruitcake derby, a fruitcake art show and a fruitcake relay.