Diner en Blanc – the Chic Pic(nic)
I must say it was easier the second time around. For the second year in a row hundreds of local food and fun aficionados from around the province and beyond converged on a secret location in Kelowna dressed in the whitest of whites to participate in the international ritual of the now famous Diner en Blanc. This “by invitation only” event has swept through the Okanagan in the past two years generating requests for invitations and leaving hundreds if not thousands of people stranded on the long waiting list. To 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 and the event grows every year, don’t worry, if you place your name on the waiting list early enough you may get an opportunity to register and participate in the Dîner en Blanc if your city offers it.
How did this fantasy chic pic(nic) begin? This event was conceived accidentally by a French (who else) aristocrat entertaining his friends at the Bois de Boulogne forest-like park 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 joie 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 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. This year’s Diner en Blanc was set over six of the bridges of Paris across the Seine river. Alexandre III bridge, the Bridge of Jena, La Passerellle Solferino, the Pont de la concord, the Pont de Alma and Passerelle Debilly at the foot of the Eiffel Tower served as the backdrop for 13,000 Diner en Blanc chic participants dressed in white in the city of light. They call it a “chic and posh version of a flash mob”, appearing and disappearing without a trace. Last year 11,000 guests set up at the Louvre courtyard and at the Trocadero. Nothing seems impossible in Paris. It is a testament to the French joie de vivre.
The event has 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 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, flapper dresses, you name it, it was there.
This year it was easier. We already had the white “must have” items that we purchased for last year’s event: table, white table cloth, white dishes, stemware, white salt and pepper shakers, white coffee carafe, white cream and sugar dishes, white centerpiece, cutlery, white outfit, white hats, white jewelry. We each added a white metal cart on wheels that would hold all our “stuff” and thankfully we could rent the chairs on location. Truth be told, this year you could rent several of these items on location from Diner en Blanc. You could even order the food. Basket Case Picnic and Brodo Kitchen (from Penticton) offered a three course picnic selection that you could buy and pick up at the dinner. This would make it easier for sure and would work for some but not for our foodie group. For Valerie of More than Burnt Toast and Laura of The Culinary Travel Guide and for me, planning, preparing and enjoying our own food at the diner en Blanc is part of the ritual, right of passage and fun. We planned a menu together, made and brought our own food to the event, regardless how heavy our baskets were getting.
Here is the menu with a couple of links to Val and Laura’s blogs for their posted recipes as well as to my potato salad:
Goat cheese and tomatoes tart
Tossed multicoloured spinach salad with edible flowers
New potatoes and green bean salad with garden parsley pesto
Grilled chicken breast with heirloom cherry tomatoes
Puglian barley salad with pecorino
Eton Mess with berries and lemon curd
Are you curious about the location? So were we. The location is kept secret and is only revealed to the anticipating picnic goers on the bus on the way to the location. Did I mention bus? You do not drive yourself to the event. The participants gather at various pick-up locations around the Okanagan, piled onto yellow school buses (yes) with all the extensive picnic paraphernalia (don’t ask) and only once the bus leaves with us on board is the secret location revealed. Last year it was held on the lake at city park, a gorgeous setting that became more beautiful as the evening progressed. As the sun was setting the lake and sky were painted with gorgeous pinks and purples and city lights twinkled in the horizon. It was so beautiful. This year we were trying to guess the location. Would they close down Water Street for us and have a long table stretching from end to end? How about Mission Hill or Kelowna Mountain overlooking the valley? The last two were unlikely as the idea behind this event is to be seen, to have hundreds (or thousands) of white clad picnic goers descend on a central location so others can see them and participate the visual feast if not in the event itself. I think that the ideal location, in fantasy if not in reality, would be the bridge across the lake. Would that not be truly spectacular to have the long white tables suspended above the water with the lake on both sides? I know, traffic would have to be diverted, impossible (is it?), I get it. But I love the idea.
So, we loaded our stuff on the school bus (here is where I had my “do I have to do this” moment), settled on the small bench seats and awaited the reveal of the location. The bus was full with beautiful young people, energetic, exuberant and dressed to the hilt. 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?). After a short guessing game with the group leader (winery? no, downtown? no, Kelowna mountain? no) he finally revealed the location: the historic Father Pandosy Mission on Benvoulin road. Okay. I was trying to digest. It wasn’t an ostensibly exciting location. Father Pandosy Mission is a historic site where Father Pandosy, the Oblate Priest, established the first Euro-Canadian settlement in the Okanagan valley in 1859. I have driven past this mission many times on my way to the various farmers stands along that road and admired the old barns and little old Catholic church on the corner of the property, still in operation today. Perhaps it will be an interesting location to hold this event. It would certainly bridge past and present and be meaningful in that way. 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the Mission and a commemorative sculpture was commissioned from a local artist Crysal Przybille. The life size bronze sculpture of Father Pandosy was installed at the Mission and unveiled in 2012. I’ll hold judgement, wait and see once we get there.
A two minute bus ride delivered us to the Mission and we exited the bus and recovered our belongings. We lined up by table numbers (ours were #3 and #4, we must have registered early) and were soon marching on the grassy ground toward the set up location. Our group leader had a white balloon with our group number written on it and this is where we were asked to begin setting our tables. A little chaos, not too much, and soon we 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 uniqueness of the event and beauty of the all white setting was worth it. It was a tribute to our love of celebration and a testament to our collective appreciation of rituals. Even the location begun to appeal to me. It may prove to be an interesting juxtaposition of where we came from and where we are headed, historically speaking.
This year we were all there and set up in time for the traditional waving of the white napkins. To the sound of the music all 850 participants raised their hands and waived white linen napkins in the air signifying the opening of the Diner en Blanc. How beautiful. 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 eight hundred and fifty guests and you get the picture. A truly unique visual feast. I was glad to be a part of it.
We set out our dinner course by course, listened to music, visited with each other and with neighbouring guests, sipped our wine and took in the scene. We walked around, photographed table settings and people and said hello here and there.
The evening ended around 10:00 pm. As night fell we all lit up our sparklers and waived them in the air in another ritual that marked the end of the evening. Just like we arrived secretly we left discreetly, collecting our belonging and leaving nothing but footprints behind.
Would I do it again next year? Sure I would, it was a magical ephemeral evening that took us out of the ordinary and provided a photogenic and visual feast. A testament to our love of celebration and rituals.
Leave it to the French to come up with this event. They have this je ne sais quoi . Vive la France.