The Sandpoint Eater: The Secret Picnic

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist

Decked out in fascinators grand enough for the recent royal wedding, a crowd of fashionable party-goers, including my guest Doug and I, waited for final instructions that would take us to our destination: a top-secret picnic spot in Paris. The sites are always beautiful and often historic for our exclusive party, dubbed “Dîner en Blanc.” 

“Dîner en Blanc” is an event that began as a modest affair in Paris in 1988. A few close friends planned an al fresco picnic-reunion below the Eiffel Tower, and to simplify finding one another in a mass of fellow Parisiennes and tourists, they agreed to dress entirely in white apparel. And thus, “Dîner en Blanc” was born. Thirty years later, the elegant picnic dinners are held in most major cities around the world, each with thousands of attendees. Besides the Eiffel Tower, past Paris venues have included the Carrousel du Louvre, the esplanade of Notre Dame and Champs Elysees.

As busloads of white-clad party goers began passing us, waving and honking, our group (and pre-designated leaders) of 100 or so was filled with palatable energy, laughter and reverie. In anticipation, champagne corks could be heard popping all around us!

I first heard about “Dîner en Blanc” about five years ago, after daughter Casey attended the first event held in Chicago. Tickets are highly coveted and difficult to procure (though once you’ve gained entrée to your first soiree, you are assured a seat at the next year’s event, and you can add two friends to an invitation waitlist). The picnic locations are always top secret, the pubic setting only revealed at the last minute. The covert gathering spot is reached via bus, metro and by foot. 

Since learning of the event, I’ve been waitlisted for a handful of them. Besides Chicago, I’ve tried to gain entry to the Seattle, Vancouver BC, and Portland events. So you can imagine my excitement when the prized email hit my inbox informing me that I’d won the lottery drawing for a pair of tickets to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of “Dîner en Blanc.” In Paris!

The tickets, which are only offered in pairs (you must bring a tablemate), are first offered to attendees of past events and then to people like me, whose name continues to show up on their most-wanted list. I had myriad reasons why it wasn’t logical for me to attend a picnic in Paris, France. It took a full minute of contemplation before I completed and submitted my application, as visions of champagne and pâté danced in my head.

I had two months to plan the menu and table arrangements for Doug and me. With great anticipation, I began to scour flea markets and thrift stores for an elegant, vintage place setting for two. Linens and proper dishware are requirements, and in each city, the “Dîner en Blanc” team makes the logistics easy by providing rentals for tables and chairs and even catered picnics for purchase. But for me, planning the menu, and gathering pieces for the table was half the fun.  

If prizes are ever awarded for packing prowess, surely, I’ll win the grand prize. I carefully wrapped each treasure and packed them, along with a detailed and prudent note to TSA, to be gentle with my vintage ware (I often wonder how those notes are received. Maybe they have me on the “crazy chef” watchlist: for years they’ve been frequent recipients my food/accessory-handling manifestos). 

There are only a handful of rules for “Dîner en Blanc”: 

Come rain or shine, you must come. You must come clothed in white, from head to foot, and your table-for-two, chairs, picnic basket and tableware must all be white.                   

You must stay until the event ends and leave your spot as you found it (including hauling your trash). 

No beer and no spirits — champagne and wine only. And proper manners throughout this civilized event are a must! 

Our group finally got the word to start moving, pulling our carts behind us as we followed our leader, Rosie, through cobblestone-lined streets until finally before us, on acres of green manicured grass, were rows after row of billowy white clothed tables, for as far as I could see. The secret location was at last revealed: Les Invalides, the 19th century monument of the French Capital. We were in good company. The gold-topped monument houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte and other notable Frenchmen. 

We had 15 minutes to sit down and setup our tables. For us, it included chargers, two sets of crystal plates, three sets of stemware, linen cocktail and dinner napkins, place cards, flowers, candles and a salt cellar with miniature spoon. A small cooler was filled with our carefully- selected gourmand choices that took literally took me hours of perusing before my final selections (it’s so hard to shop for two)! No one can begin until the famous napkin twirl. Spirits were high and so were 30,000 twirling white napkins as we commenced to party, like civilized ladies and gentlemen. 

The attire ranged from sophisticated formalwear to French shabby-chic flowing white dresses and seasonal white suits. The omni-present hats included fedoras and top hats for men and tiaras and fascinators for women (I wore Ryanne’s simple wedding tiara, which I had mistakenly referred to as a hairband, before she corrected me).  Guests with champagne flutes in hand strolled through rows and rows of tables, scoping out the fashions, from simple to way over the top. 

For me, the night was all about the food, such exquisite looking cuisine I will always remember: blinis and caviar, wheel after wheel of miniature cheeses that were soft and oozing, pâtés, prosciutto, beautifully garnished Salade Niçoise, chilled baby lamb chops drizzled with mint sauces, lobster medallions en croûte and crusty French baguettes on every table (placed end to end would, they would likely reach Paris to Ponderay). French pastries were decadent cream filled, fruit or ganache-top creations, masquerading as works of art. 

For hours in the heart of the city, we ate and drank and laughed and sang. Under a perfect pink sky, we raised our glasses often, celebrating the night and our neighbors at nearby tables. Fast friendships were forged and contacts shared. Our tablemate, Ethan from Detroit, even confided to us that he would propose to girlfriend Angelia before the night was over.  

The grand finale, with more than a dozen orchestras playing in the background, was an explosion of flickering fire from the thousands of sparklers we twirled to light up the night. 

A weekend in Paris left no time for personal shopping, but I brought back fond memories I’ll never forget. From now on, whenever I prepare my favorite Salade Niçoise, I’ll think of the night in the city of light. Even if you’ve never there, I think you’ll love this classic French salad. 

Farewell Paris, it was a great party.

___

Niçoise Salade Recipe
This French-inspired salad makes a delightful and pretty summer lunch, especially now, with the abundance of garden fresh parsley. Nicoise olives are not readily available in Sandpoint. You can substitute other small, French olives (or do like me, and haul them home from Pike Place or other suitable markets). Make the dressing first and refrigerate.  Plate/compose the salads artfully and serve with crusty French bread.

Vinaigrette Ingredients:

• 1-2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

• ¼ tsp mustard

• 1/2 cup good quality olive oil

• Salt and pepper to taste

(makes about 1/2 cup)

Shake all ingredients vigorously in a pint-sized canning jar.

 

Salad Ingredients:

• 1/2 pound new potatoes, quartered

• 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

• 1/4 cup pitted nicoise olives

• 1/2 onion, thinly sliced

• 1 (6 ounce) can tuna in olive oil

• 1/3 pound fresh green beans – 

      rinsed, trimmed and blanched

• 2 Tbs lemon juice

•¼ cup olive oil

• 3 cups mixed salad greens

• 4 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

• 3 roma (plum) tomatoes, quartered

• 1 tablespoon capers

• 8 anchovy filets

 

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes, and cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. Drain and cool.

In a large bowl, whisk olive oil and lemon juice, whisk to combine, then add potatoes, parsley, olives, onion, tuna and green beans. Toss and refrigerate 2 to 4 hours.

In large bowl, toss greens with vinaigrette and top with chilled potato mixture. Garnish with eggs, tomatoes, capers, anchovies and lemon wedges.

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