5 July 2013

We Share a White Chocolate Panna Cotta with Honey Balsamic Roasted Cherries at Diner en Blanc

Photo by Dina Honke
It's one of France's greatest exports next to baguettes, Godard movies and Thierry Henry. On an ethereal night hundreds of people dressed elegantly in white, converged at a secret location, shrouded in mystery, setting up miles of white fold-up tables draped in white crisp linens and topped with sparkling crystal soon to be filled with local wines. White plates and silverware were set, table decorations arranged from candles to candelabras. Our senses were heightened and we were more than ready for a highly anticipated evening. The stage was set, candles flickered and nature created the backdrop, a kaleidoscope show of colour in the fading light as a sea of white revellers loomed before us. 

We waved our napkins in the air  collectively, the sound of popping sparkling wines echoed all around, and there was a collective sigh of relief. All the planning, all the waiting has ended. We are all here for one purpose. We love food. We love celebration. We love the mystery. We mingle, we dine, we entertain. With the lake as a focal point, a welcoming breeze on a sultry evening, and a wonderful view of the mountains, it seemed even the sunset and the moon cooperated . More champagne led to dancing... and as a friend said, "Non, je ne regrette rien..." I regret nothing. The original founder meant for this unique event to feel like a dream—the dinner party pops up in the middle of a public place and then disappears without a trace...like magic.

 “Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.” ― Ruth Reichl

Despite our cumbersome arrival by a fleet of school buses with fold up table, chairs and picnic baskets in tow, the 600 pre-registered guests strove for elegance to emulate the original Parisian diners who launched Dîner en Blanc 25 years ago. Fascinators, white masks and wigs, jaunty hats and even 18th century style clothing were all "over the top" expressions of our 'tres chiche' individuality. No two were dressed alike. We were all in high spirits for the very first sanctioned Dîner en Blanc in the Okanagan Valley. From global phenomenon to highly sought after “secret,” Dîner en Blanc took over Kelowna's City Park on the waterfront for the second year in a row on July 4, 2013. This très chic picnic, imported from France, is equal parts mystery tour, pop-up feast and 'je ne sais quoi.' It could be described as the flash mob of the culinary world. We came, we saw, we conquered!

Photo by Dina Honke
I love the whole concept!!  Although Dîner en Blanc may be a 'pop-up' picnic, plaid napkins and fried chicken are nowhere in sight!  Picnic baskets are packed with elegant white linens, white china dishes, real silverware and amazing food. Guests are requested to pack a 3-course meal which was limited only by our imaginations. On the menu my partner Dina of Olive Oil and Lemons and I dreamed up a feast with portability in mind. A velvety Pea Soup with Mint, Salmon Ballotine Stuffed with Crab with a Caper Lemon Yogurt Sauce, a tasty Potato Salad with Green Beans, Radicchio and Pea Shoots in a Champagne Vinaigrette, and for dessert a hip-friendly White Chocolate Panna Cotta with Honey Balsamic Roasted Cherries (recipe below), an array of cheeses, freshly picked cherries, grapes and candied hazelnuts. With coffee served in a white carafe of course. Our tastebuds danced across the table with every culinary masterpiece placed before us.

Cooking is like love. 
It should be entered into with abandon 
or not at all.
 -Harriet van Horne

The whole secrecy around the location is just to get people really excited over the concept, they keep you guessing on the actual spot. Foodies and cultural enthusiasts dressed elegantly in white descended upon Kelowna's City Park, the venue that was revealed at the very last minute for an outstanding evening of elegance, beauty and magic. 

True to tradition, bystanders and passersby witnessed our  group of revellers gathering at specific rallying points all across the city. We were there to see and be seen. Our individual groups then converged on one of the most beautiful settings in the city one by one to set up their tables and encroutements en masse. The logistics of organizing 600 people is mind blowing in itself. Four hundred arrived by bus and another 200 met at a downtown location and walked over. How they manage to organize 1,000's in larger cities is mind blowing. We surveyed the scene with awe as it unfolded around us as we sipped wines brought in from Haywire Winery in Summerland.

The unofficial Okanagan White Dinner was held last year as a precursor to the event but this is the first year as a community that we have Dîner en Blanc status. The Okanagan event was held in Kelowna which is the smallest of the cities worldwide but with our background of award winning wines and a reputation as a culinary destination, it seems only natural for us to be part of this unique experience. Spatula Media + Communications and Impact Events negotiated official status for Dîner en Blanc Okanagan. With this official status we join some of the most glamorous cities around the world including Paris, Milan, Barcelona, San Francisco, Chicago and Sidney.  The Okanagan joins only eight other cities granted status in Canada to date... Montreal, Calgary Quebec City, Vancouver, Victoria, Edmundston, Niagara-on-the-Lake,  and Toronto. There are other non-sanctioned white dinners around the world and I even read about a Diner en Noir in San Francisco.

How did this yearly worldwide event start you ask? Dîner en Blanc is a magical experience that began in perhaps the chi-chest city in the world...Paris. It is a celebration of old-world elegance that Jay Gatsby would have adored. In the summer of 1988, Francois Pasquier had just returned to Paris after a few years abroad and held a dinner party to reconnect with friends. So many wished to attend that he asked them to convene at Bois de Boulogne dressed in white, so they would be recognizable to one another. Each attendee was also asked to bring a friend. The evening was such a hit that guests wanted more friends to join-in the following year and thus was born the concept of Dîner en Blanc. Dîner en Blanc now brings together over 10,000 people each year in some of the most prestigious locations throughout the French capital.

In June 1991, four years after the event’s debut, the founding group of friends decided to organize their growing numbers in one of the French capital’s most beautiful locations, Pont des Arts, in the heart of Paris (a first). Knowing full well that local authorities would never allow such an event to take place there, keeping the location a secret until the very last minute was crucial to the success of the event.

Following in his fathers footsteps, one of his sons, Aymeric Pasquier, moved to Montreal and kept the family tradition going when he came together with friends to hold the first Dîner en Blanc in Canada in August of 2009.

Quoting from the elegantly written prose of the event website:
"White-swathed tables appear in orderly rows, 
white balloons drift lazily skyward as gleeful attendees, 
dressed head to toe in the color du jour, 
unwrap their summer's eve repast. 
The backdrop of the secret location 
add the only splash of color to the
 monochromatic celebration...." 

The worldwide phenomenon known as Dîner en Blanc celebrates its 25th anniversary this year!  What began as a “friends and word-of-mouth only” event has grown into an international epicurean phenomenon on five continents in 35 cities and 23 countries around the world. While the technology behind the event may have changed over the years, the principles fuelling this fantastic event have not. Diners continue to gather at a secret location for the sole purpose of sharing a high-quality meal with good friends and hundreds of strangers in one of their city’s most beautiful locations. Each event is headed by passionate local organizers who fell in love with the concept and wanted to bring it to their city, giving this rendezvous a local flair.

I think it’s just a really cool excuse to get together and forget everything else that’s going on for about four hours, and just really take in that 'joie de vivre' which at the end of the day is the essence of French dining culture. The idea is to show the great power of human connection and share the experience with hundreds of new found friends. As the Twitter posts and newscasts shared the event, perhaps some of the naysayers, who believed only an idiot would pay money to bring their own tables and chairs and food to dinner, were silently wishing they were a part of this. If you're intrigued there is always next year guys. In truth the original cost of buying a table and chairs, white plates and a white outfit can be daunting at first but once that initial expense is made subsequent events year after year will cost a minimal amount.

Over the course of the evening, we savoured appetizers to desserts and celebrated amidst live music, dancing, complete with festive white balloons. Visually breathtaking moments included the waving of our cloth napkins to mark the beginning of the dinner, as well as the lighting of sparklers to let participants know they were now free to circulate, mingle and dance. When it was time to leave, guests pack up their crystal, dinnerware and tables, pick up all their litter and headed into the night, leaving behind no sign of their elegant revelry. It's as if it never happened like Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Nights Dream."

Would I attend again next year? Absolutely! I already have 6 people who have approached me to sponsor them next year. If every member invited one friend to next years event our numbers would double. I wonder if the event is held on the same night around the world?  A true food enthusiast I am already dreaming of next years menu which will include a group this time around. If I had only one negative thing to say I wish we were given more time to enjoy the company and our 3-courses before the music and dancing began, which although there was exceptional entertainment, it drowned out any possibility of getting to know your neighbours and take a few moments to savour your meal before all conversation ended. It is impossible to have a conversation without shouting even at an outdoor event when their is music involved. As always I regret not taking more photos. I guess I was busy savouring the moment. I had read also that in other cities worldwide the event goes until midnight but ours ended at 10:00. Perhaps our liquor licensing is different here in the valley. Nevertheless it was an outstanding event.

To include you in our revelry I offer you a recipe for a panna cotta served in mason jars for portability.  For our picnic this year I put together this quick and light dessert featuring white chocolate and chunky Nutella, perfect for dinner guests or as a simple indulgence. The star of the show though was the roasted balsamic cherries. Bon appetit!! 'Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup' means (Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly).

**White Chocolate and Hazelnut Panna Cotta**

½ cup thickened cream
½ cup milk
1 tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean,
25g (2 tablespoons) white chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon powdered gelatine
2-3 tablespoons dry-roasted hazelnuts, chopped
⅓ cup chocolate hazelnut spread (see note)

Honey Balsamic Roasted Cherries

4 cups fresh pitted cherries
2 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

Place cream, milk and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes or until almost simmering (do not boil). Remove from heat. Add 25g finely chopped white chocolate. Stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Pour mixture into a heatproof bowl. Sprinkle over gelatine. (if using gelatine sheets soak 3 sheets in cold water briefly and add to cream mixture. Whisk to dissolve gelatine. Split vanilla bean in tow. Scrape seeds and add cream mixture. Cool for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir chopped hazelnuts (add more or less depending on how chunky you’d like it) through chocolate hazelnut spread. Spread 1 tablespoon of spread onto the bottom of 2 mason jars. Smooth top.

Carefully pour cream mixture, over the back of a metal teaspoon, into each glass. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 4 hours or until set.

Remove from refrigerator 10 minutes before serving. Decorate with remaining 25g shaved white chocolate. Serve immediately.

You may find it easier to layer the chocolate hazelnut spread if it is melted. Heat the spread in the microwave until it is melted (do not allow it to get too hot or boil), then spoon it carefully into the bowls and spread it evenly. Tap the bowls on the counter-top to help even it out and eliminate air bubbles. Allow an extra 10 minutes cook time for cooling, and an extra 4 hours for the panna cotta to set.

For Honey Balsamic Roasted Cherries: Preheat oven to 450.  Spread the pitted cherries in an even layer on a baking sheet.  Whisk together the honey, vinegar and oil until combined and pour over the cherries, tossing to coat.  Roast at 450 for 20-25 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes, until the cherries start to look wrinkled and the juices start to thicken.  Remove from oven and let sit for about 5 minutes to cool, and then serve however your little heart desires!  I served mine with frozen yogurt, but ice cream or regular yogurt would be fabulous too!

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.

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  1. What a wonderful event! It takes place in such a beautiful place. Your panna cotta must taste absolutely divine.



  2. Looks like a great event, the champagne looks nice

  3. Wow!!!! I heard about this event!!!! It took place in Barcelona also... don't remember when... I want to be a part of it like you did!!! It's sooooooo awesome! You look divine lol! Like the royal family, lol, lol. Super great, love it! Hugs from Barcelona :D

    1. They hold it every year in Barcelona Nuria, you just need to find someone that has been and is a member and they can sponsor you to go:D

  4. What a fabulous and sophisticated event. Love the all white theme. So fitting that you've featured a dessert with Nutella. When we were at the supermarket in Provence, they had a whole aisle devoted to Nutella. The French must eat a lot of it. I'm so pleased it's easy to find in the states.

  5. Val, great write-up about a fun event. Let's do it again next year, but with a roller carry-on.

  6. Indeed a magical event, Val. You look beautiful in your lovely white dress and hat. I'm sure it did feel like you were in a dream. What fun.

  7. A pop up picnic...ha! Love it! Sounds like so much fun!

  8. That looks like a divine evening in bianco ~

  9. Love your write up on the event and those white hats are just stunning. Your panna cotta sounds lovely. 25 years of fun and a good reason to celebrate it all over again.

  10. Clearly the event of the century! You look stunning! Love your hat and outfit - where ever would you find it? I guess the dress shops really had fun bringing in white clothing - and hats! Love the fellow with the wig. A really great write up - but the organizers must have supplied the candles and the flowers and the tables and the linen? Correct - and then are you given a group to organize your food with? Everyone eats their own meal? I would be wandering around with my fork!
    What a lovely surreal concept. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you Valerie. Kelowna have not gotten into bringing white clothing and accessories in yet, but they will jump on the bandwagon for next year I am sure. The hat I found at a vintage clothing store which reminded me of the '30's and the flapper era. Perfect for The Great Gatsby!! We bring our own table, chairs, and table decorations, plates, wine glasses, cutlery, etc.The idea is to arrive and leave without a trace..as if by magic:D

      http://calgary.dinerenblanc.info Just as a nudge Calgary held a Diner en Blanc on the same night:D So they will again next year.

      As always I regret not taking more photos. I guess I was busy savouring the moment.

  11. Val, you instantly took me back to my diner en blanc experience...wasn't it fun? Looks like the organizers did a bang-up job!

    1. It was a magical experience Peter. I first read about the event on your blog. Kelowna is a rising star.

  12. Oh my, that seems utterly magical! I'm tempted to start one up myself. Thanks for sharing. Such beautiful images to start off a Saturday morning.

  13. What a fun concept and beautiful event. How fun to see you in your pretty white hat :)

  14. What an amazing, fun event! I love everything about this and love your panna cotta contribution! It sounds like it perfectly fit into such an amazing evening!

  15. This looks SO fun, Val! (And you look gorgeous!! So elegant! :-)) The dessert sounds amazing. I LOVE hazelnut so much. :-)

  16. so much white! those cherries would inevitably be all over whatever pristine clothes i had on. :)

    1. Ha! Ha! I was concerned too Grace. It is why I never wear white since I inevitably wear whatever I am eating..too much pressure. Amazingly I returned home spiffy clean from the event.

    2. Ha! I wear my food when I have white on as well. Lucky you for avoiding it!

  17. Great idea on the panna cotta in mason jars, especially with local cherries!
    I couldn't attend this year unfortunately but I am slotted in for next year no matter what.
    When you attend do you share with the people seated nearby or how does that aspect work?
    I am wondering how much I should bring and where did you get your table/chairs from?


    1. It is definitely not to be missed Murissa. We needed to purchase a table of a certain size and we rented chairs. But you can certainly purchase white ones.We made our dinner for the two of us, but if you are going with a group I do not see why you couldn't make a couse for the group. Share the wealth.

  18. Val - Each city can host their Diner en Blanc any night they wish, but here in the Okanagan we did share the date with Calgary and Haiti with Victoria hosting their version the week prior and Barcelona and New York this week!

    1. I received photos of attendees from Calgary. Such fun, although apparently it rained there.

  19. What a beautiful event! I've always been intrigued by it as I've seen it pop up here and there -- and was tempted when it was here, but didn't go. Lovely photos of what looks like a perfect evening. Your hat is fabulous! Thinking about that lemon caper sauce...

  20. what a lovely event for sure! and you look so cute in your hat! I love the bigness of the event and how it's attended. your particular backdrop -- water -- is stunning.

  21. Wonderful post -- I don't know how I missed it because I was waiting for it. Love the 'culinary flash mob' analogy!

  22. Pure magic Val. If i were there I wouldn't miss it either. Great pic of you!


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