Valencia, Part Two - It was another morning, which meant another visit to the market. Today, I got ciabatta from the panaderia, jamon serrano from the carneceria, and a handful of mesclun and three ripe tomatoes from the fruteria. The mesclun was an important addition, providing some much welcome greenery and crunch. More important were the tomatoes, which I was eating because I didn't know if I'd ever want to eat them again. Tomorrow, we'd be going to the Tomatina festival, engaging in a brutal hour-long grand-scale fight. Biting into the rapturously succulent skin of the first tomato, I hoped I wouldn't have to turn against such a great fruit. Afterwards, Vince and I went to the Museo del Bellas Artes, which meant looking at three hundred more depictions of Jesus as an infant or Jesus being crucified. Luckily, they also had a special exhibit of Josef de Ribera portraits which I rather enjoyed.
For dinner, we decided we needed another "splurge." As it was the night before Tomatina, everyone was sitting at the outdoor bars, where round after round of drinks occupied all the tables. Walking around town was like being at the Tower of Babel and I was enjoying all the palpable excitement. We ended up at the Bar Pilar, another destination recommended by Vince's guidebook. It served tapas and specialized in mejillones, or mussels. The area under the bar was even lined with plastic buckets, where diners threw their emptied black shells afterward. Not ones to ignore a specialty, we went with an order of mussels, tried again with patatas bravas, split two sandwiches and each got a glass of their cheapest wine. Sandwich-wise, Vince ordered his standby, a tortilla francesa with jamon. I tried to branch out with the blanco y negro, which came with a white strip of lomo and a dark black pudding.
The mussels were tasty, soaking in a tomato-pepper broth. Still, it was the broth more than the mussels that was unique. On the merits of the seafood alone, I preferred the ones in the paella the previous day. As for the patatas bravas, the potatoes had a nice crispy outside, with a base of spicy sauce and topped with a thick dollop of mayo and in terms of the sandwiches, the omelette was quite good, improved by the salty cuts of ham. I also enjoyed my piece of lomo. However, resolved to give the ominous black pudding a try, I can now say that I have no need to try any more. Until I get resurrected as a Brit, ground meats masquerading as puddings will not be my cup of tea.
Then, finally, it was August 31st, a day that was nine years in the making. Ever since I first heard of Tomatina, the annual festival that's really just one huge tomato target practice, I knew I would have to attend. I dreamed of being one of those red-drenched lunatics in the bloodbath of seeds and skins, featured in a clip on the news every year, and I dreamed of venturing into the Spanish countryside to peg strangers in the head with projectiles and to have them assault me right back in a hailstorm of produce.
We took the half-hour trip to Buñol on a special Tomatren. Everyone headed there was either quiet or nervous, awaiting the carnage to come. In the town plaza, where all the buildings were draped in clear tarps, the crowd only grew and grew. As we assembled, we all focused on a soap-greased pole near the front, at the top of which dangled a giant ham. The goal was to climb to the top and capture the ham, thus kicking off the start of the festival. People piled on, desperately clinging to the slippery wood, eager to emerge the hero.
We watched, we laughed, we cheered, we booed when the selfishness sent the pile topping, we sang "olé olé olé!" when a communal mood struck. We were ecstatic and young and even those of us who weren't felt like they were. It took about an hour of anticipation, of false starts and near-misses, of rivalries and pulled down pants for the ham to come down too. Now all we had to do was celebrate and wait for the trucks of tomatoes to barrel down the streets.
Soon, it was madness. Hoses of water rained down on the crowd. A streak of red whirred past my ear. Another bright blur sailed over my head and splattered against the wall. I was covered in juice. We were so tightly packed. I grabbed eight weapons at once and launched them. I ducked and dove. Others rose up on the ledges and made themselves targets. They were pelted mercilessly and without pause. More trucks kept coming. I kept throwing. I kept being thrown at. An uncrushed tomato smashed directly into my eye. I started blinking red. Everything was red. Everyone was wet and gummy. People kept chanting louder, defiant. Another tomato smacked into my ear. I started getting malicious on innocent targets. Time went by and the center of the plaza turned into a swamp, a swamp that ate flip-flops and balled-up T-shirts and sometimes even whole people. I squeezed my way into the center, the swamp, the pulpy core of danger. The tomatoes flew even more ferociously there. Everyone was completely drenched. I was more tomato than man now, a tomato down to the atomic level. We had been swallowed up and shat out as a rough, crunchy ketchup.
Then a horn sounded and somehow, the war just as suddenly ended. The townspeople started to hose us down and sell us beer. Car radios pumped out catchy beats and former enemies danced together in the streets. The few men still wearing shirts stripped them off and the women walked around in their stained bikinis, basking in the adventure we had all endured together, the experience we had all contributed to creating.
Exhausted and still picking chunks of tomato out of my hair, I caught the train back to Valencia and took one of the longest showers of my life. I got a lot of food at the supermarket and ate ravenously. Still, I made sure that my jamon serrano, mixed green salad, bottle of horchata, rustic baguette and four containers of banana yogurt would also last into dinner. The bit-of-a-splurge ham was incredible and the special-to-Valencia horchata was cinnamon-y and interesting, but for once in the end, the food was but a detail in an insane day that took nine years to ripen.
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Friday, September 09, 2005