Dîner en Blanc, Kelowna, July 4, 2013
After much anticipation (not excluding a few “do I really need to do this” moments) the day has arrived. Dîner en Blanc dream-like picnic in Kelowna was happening tonight. The event was conceived almost accidentally by a French (who else) aristocrat entertaining his friends at the Bois de Boulogne forest-like park in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. This popular park is a destination for many Parisians and guests to Monsieur Pasquier party were asked to dress in white to distinguish themselves from other park visitors. Who can party like the French with their joi de vivre? The event was so successful that a repeat party the next year attracted more than 1000 guests in white attire and the rest is history, still in the making. Since the original gathering in 1988 in the Bois de Boulonge, Dîner en Blanc has taken on an international theme and the elegant picnics are now held on every continent from Africa, North America, Asia, Australia, and of course the originating Europe. I must say that I was quite surprised to learn that South America does not have a Dîner en Blanc event yet. I would love to be there when they hold their first one. Now that would be a party.
The event evolved into an organized affair with rules and regulations that must be followed fairly strictly. As annoying as this can be at times, I concede that to achieve the visual impact that makes the elegant picnic what it is, the organizers must demand uniformity or lose the visual effect. Guests must of course dress all in pure white, not off-white, not winter white. It has to be true white, from hat to elegant footwear (no flip flops allowed). If you don’t comply, you may be refused admission. This sounds easy enough but it does not end here. Each guest must also provide all of their picnic accouterments, from white chairs, (yes), white table (aha), white carrying baskets containing white china, silverware, glassware and a three course meal. You must bring a white tablecloth to drape over your table, white candles, a white centerpiece and guests are encouraged to add an “over the top” element to their presentation (white wigs, feather boas, white masks, you name it, it was there). To even attend the dinner one must be “on the list” or be invited by someone who is. You are not on the list? don’t despair: there is tiered system that places you on certain levels of waiting lists with specific release dates to register for the event, space permitted. Since the effect comes from numbers, don’t worry, if you place your name on the waiting list you will get an opportunity to register and participate in the Dîner en Blanc if your city offers it.
I was invited to attend the glamourized picnic by my friend Valerie, a fellow blogger of the More than Burnt Toast fame. Val is a good sport and knows how to enjoy the moment and I knew she would be a good partner in the adventure and offset my “do I have to do that” nature:). We met at my house for coffee made in my new and shiny Nesspresso and served in my new checkered McKenzie-Childs cups to discuss the event, plan the menu and divide the responsibility for bringing the required items. Coffee turned into lunch as us foodies talked about everything from food to travel to food photography to cookbooks and dreams about future joint ventures of food and travel. That’s what happens when two foodies get together. At the end of the afternoon a menu was set, list created and off we went to organize ourselves for the upcoming event.
My list included finding and purchasing a white table of specific measurements (28-32 inches), a white tablecloth and white picnic baskets. Val was in charge of finding white chairs, and a centrepiece. In addition each would need white dishes for the dinner, wine and water glasses, cutlery, napkins, and whatever would make a beautiful table setting and be “reasonable” to carry to the picnic site.
Oh, yes, the picnic site. The location of the event is a top secret “undisclosed location” to be revealed to the white clad participants only at the very last moment on the bus taking you there (yes, you read right, on a bus). More on that later.
Finding the table (and chairs) was not as easy as it may sound. Val found a couple of white chairs at a rental company, one of the few that still had some items available. Tables were no where to be found . The few hundred participants descended on every available rental place in town and cleaned out the all things white (“oh, you are with the dinner in white thing, sorry, we are all out”). We should have started earlier. Eventually I found a table that fit the requirements at a Canadian Tire store in Vernon. It came in it’s own carrying case and apparently was easy to assemble.
Getting ready for the event became a focused undertaking and was also getting expensive. It only cost $30 to register for Dîner en Blanc (plus another $30 for the wine) but assembling the all white wardrobe and picnic must-haves was beginning to add up. Especially the way I do things.
The menu was the easy part. Val offered to make a salmon with cucumber sauce that eventually evolved into a gorgeous ballotine of salmon stuffed with crab and cream cheese. For dessert she was to make a panna cotta with roasted balsamic cherries. Can’t wait. My part was to bring a first course and a side dish to go with the salmon. A chilled soup (peas? Beets? Avocado-lime?) and a potato-vegetable salad in champagne vinaigrette were appealing to me and made the final cut. But we are not there yet.
Several runs to Home Sense, Chef’s Edge, Home Outfitter etc. yielded most of what I needed. I found two square white storage baskets that I thought could work as a picnic baskets and purchased two. A long white linen tablecloth, napkins, white salt and pepper shakers, large white cups to serve the chilled soup in, white ceramic milk bottle with caps to carry the chilled soup and a couple of smaller ones for cream for the soup and half and half for the coffee (yes, coffee too, we are foodies). I found a white thermos to be filled with coffee at the coffee house downstairs (decaf Americano for two). A couple of white ceramic dishes for the bread and cheese. Coffee cups. What else? Oh, white clothing. I will not get into the “I had so many before the fire”. This is done. So I had to find something new. As luck would have it I found something right across the street from where we live at Jigsaw Clothing. A white linen dress from Italy that was flowing enough to make me comfortable and a white scarf (gift from Jigsaw owner Tracy). White hat from the Bay and white Italian sandals eventually completed the ensemble. See? I can cooperate.
With everything in place on the day of, it was time to get into the kitchen and prepare the food. Here is the menu:
- Chilled fresh pea soup with mint and cream (Dina)
- Salmon ballotine stuffed with crab and cream cheese (Val)
- Baby potatoes and vegetable salad with pea shoots and radiccio (among other things) (Dina)
- Panna cotta with roasted balsamic cherries (Val)
- Bread and butter (Dina)
- Cheeses, grapes (Val and Dina)
- Decaf Americano for two (Dina)
- Wine pre- purchased and provided on location (Haywire Pinot Gris)
My part was simple to prepare but between the phone calls with the kids, a couple of errands, the usual household activities and calls with my gal-friends it took me all day. I shelled three bags of peas for the chilled pea soup, then added them to sautéeing leek together with fragrant mint leaves from my rooftop garden. A homemade vegetable stock linked everything together and the peas boiled happily for a short while before being puréed in a blender to a very smooth and silky consistency. Into a jar and into the fridge it went to chill for the dinner.
The potato-vegetable salad I could make with my eyes closed because it is a standard feature in my all-vegetarian kitchen. I steamed baby potatoes, then peeled and halved them and tossed while still warm with a champagne vinaigrette made with Dijon mustard and finely chopped shallots. I didn’t want to add any of the other vegetables yet because they can lose their green colour from the acid in the vinaigrette. I steamed the green beans, sliced a few radishes, ribboned a radicchio, trimmed a handful of pea shoots and shelled a few more peas, all to be added into the salad in due course.
I packed the white picnic “basket”, wrapping silverware in white linen napkins, nesting glasses in larger cups separated by more linen and tied white chiffon fabric “handle” over the basket to help me carry it in a little bit of “style”. Almost ready to leave.
Val came a little early dressed in white with white hat and jewelry looking fresh and in anticipation of a fun event. I quickly got dressed.
White dress check ✓
White scarf check ✓
White hat check ✓
Pearl bracelets (2) check ✓
Long white and gold necklace check ✓
White sandals check ✓
The camera and lenses went into a white nylon bag that I could carry on my back. The table in it’s own carrying container on the shoulder. The basket with the chiffon “handle” in my hand. You get the picture, and “elegant” is not the right word.
We settled everything in my Hummer, picked up the coffee at Blendz Coffee downstairs and a little extra cheese and grapes at Urban Fare and headed to the pick-up location where we were to board a bus (Oye) with all our paraphernalia and be transported to the as of yet secret “undisclosed location”. After traveling for half an hour in search of St. Paul’s Church we finally realized that it was a block from where we started. Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone. In spite of being 15 minutes late all the buses were still there and no one was boarding yet. We parked the car, schlepped all our items on our shoulders and headed for the adventure.
We gave our name to the organizer who assigned us to the “Chardonnay” bus and advised that we will be at table #14. On the bus we went, table, chairs, baskets, suitcases and bags (Val’s) and waited with anticipation to finally hear where the glamorized event will take place. I was visualizing long white tables in a vineyard in one of the numerous vineyards Kelowna has to offer. What a beautiful setting as a backdrop to Diner en Blanc. But no, not so fast. The location, when finally disclosed on the bus, ended up being the Kelowna City Park, along the lake. I get it. This is not really that elusive of an event. It was meant to “see and be seen” which is I guess part of the charm and the visual benefit for everyone, not only the participants. Still, I would have preferred a vineyard. So we sat on the bus for a total of 2 minutes before we were asked to disembark, remove our “stuff” and wait in line to cross the street and line up in the loooong line up of guests waiting to be led to the area where they can soon set their tables and begin to enjoy the experience:)
The bus was full with beautiful young people, energetic, exuberant and dressed to the hilt. Val and I definitely brought the average age up by a couple of decades (sorry Val). Ratio of women to men was high but still, a few men were there in white trousers and white linen shirts, some even in white suits (where did they find those?).
I won’t lie to you. Standing in the lineup, dragging the heavy items a couple of steps every few minutes and not seeing the end of it was getting me down. I should have had a wheeled carrier for all this stuff. I didn’t realize we’d have so long to walk. I tried to keep my thoughts to myself but still, occasionally I had to express some of it to Val who was in pretty good spirit in spite of the “hardship”. I told you we were a good match.
Eventually we did make it to our designated area but it seems that the party started a while ago without us. Our table was not even set up when the customary waving of the napkins was happening all around us. Our table section was one of the last ones to be set up and the rest of the tables were well into their dinner when we were setting up our table.
In any event, we finally did get settled, assembled the table, unfolded the chairs, threw the white cloth over the table, set out the white dinnerware, stemware,, silverware, open the screw cap bottle of wine and leaned back to begin the experience. We clicked glasses and decided that in spite of the “minor” inconveniences, the beauty of the setting was worth it. It was a tribute to our love of celebration and a testament to our collective appreciation of rituals.
Dîner en Blanc was set up in a fenced area along the beautiful Okanagan lake in the City Park. Dozens of tables in parallel rows glistened with white cloth, candles, flowers and even candelabras. Guests were creative and original and the tables they set were beautiful and celebratory. No effort seemed too much. Multiply this by five hundred guests and you get the picture. A truly unique visual feast.
Val and I settled to sample our offering, beginning with the chilled minted pea soup and continuing to the exquisite salmon ballotine. The potato salad with beans and pea shoots in champagne vinaigrette added a zesty element and the visual of our plate was gorgeous. Our food did attract interest from neighbouring tables and when they heard that we were two food bloggers they nodded in understanding (oh, you are foodies, I’ll check your blogs”).
The nice part about this menu was that you could leave things on the plate and go around taking picture and come back to a perfectly good dinner that remained fresh at room temperature. We had to get up several time and photograph the gorgeous scene with the backdrop of the lake. We’d wander around with our cameras and then sit down again for a few more bites and a few more sips of the wine.
As the sun set and the evening descended, candles were lit, sparklers waived in the air and dancing begun to live music that wafted through the park.
The evening ended around 10:00 pm. We packed our baskets, dismantled the table, folded the chairs and begun the pilgrimage back to the bus. I will leave it at that.
Would I do it again next year? Sure I would, it was a magical evening that took you out of the ordinary and provided a photogenic and visual feast. A testament to our love of celebration and rituals. Next year though I will be better prepared with something on wheels that will make it easier to carry what I need to bring.
Leave it to the French to come up with this event. They have this je ne sais quoi .
Vive la France.
For images from Diner en Blanc around the word check out this website: http://dinerenblanc.info
Recipes to follow. Stay tuned.