Geoffrey's

Geoffrey’s of Antibes: You are what you eat?

I recently ordered a music stand from Amazon for delivery in Antibes.  Perhaps it was the shape of the box, but dispatch to the usual Amazon Locker being impossible, I scanned the available pick-up options.  

Geoffrey’s of London. My heart did an elaborate flip.

What better excuse?  I would be obliged to set foot into Geoffrey’s, and while I was there . . . .  I ticked the appropriate box, and in the days awaiting my Amazon delivery notice, I drew up a short list.

I have a complicated relationship with Geoffrey’s.  When my family and I moved part-time to Antibes 13 years ago, we were at first too busy with French renovations to amble into that corner of Antibes where Geoffrey’s resided.  It wasn’t so far from Rue de la République, the street forming the spine of Antibes’ picturesque old town, but at the edge of Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, this backbone bent fetchingly toward the vibrant Place Nationale, and I’d never felt the urge to detour onto Rue Lacan past the broad, utilitarian Post Office building.

supermarket and pub
This corner of Antibes brought out my inner battles.  

But this late morning I stood in the sunshine at the far end of Rue Lacan.  On one side of me, Antibes’ rampart walls masked Port Vauban and its maritime sprawl of sailboats, speedboats, and superyachts.  On the other side, the terrace of Le Blue Lady pub popped with voices.  Patrons, all clean-cut men but for one high blond ponytail, sipped their coffees and beers (for it was that transitional time of day).  If I’d approached them, I would’ve heard English.  

cracker shelves
Geoffrey’s had all the best crackers . . .

Sandwiched in the middle of the port and the pub lay a quieter destination – but only in the auditory sense.  Monster posters covering the storefront blared a different sort of Anglicisms:  Colman’s Mustard.  Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.  Pot Noodle.  Bovril.  PG Tips.  Marmite.  Mingled among the marketing were Union Jacks, one flag embedded in the “O” of Geoffrey’s.  The title ran in a banner headline at the top of the building along with the phrase “British Supermarket.”  

marmite and vegemite
. . . all the traditional Anglo-Saxon spreads . . .

Amazon reference number and a short list in hand, I swung open the glass door. The sales clerk looked up from the till, then back down at her paper.  When you entered Geoffrey’s small warehouse, there was no need to share the customary French “bonjour,” even if I knew her version of the word would’ve been “hello.” 

Desire and disdain, both of them, flooded my soul as the door closed behind me.  It was just like my first visit, a good decade ago, when I’d searched for cream cheese.  I had laid my hands on a killer cheesecake recipe, and while the French did cheese – they obviously did cheese – I needed cream cheese.  Geoffrey’s small tub of Philadelphia had unearthed an inner conflict:  My Canadian-American family had decided to live in France. Together we’d known North American and British customs, but we’d chosen to embrace a new culture in its true and undiluted state.  Was shopping at Geoffrey’s giving in?

indian sauces
. . . and enough variety to fill the whole Indian food group.

The same utilitarian shelves now fanned out before me.  I glided through their aisles, unable to resist the lure of tastes and memories hidden among the inventory.  There were mustards and mayos and treacle and walnut-honey crackers from The Fine Cheese Company in Bath.  There were Cadbury’s chocolates and Digestive biscuits, the cookies I’d crushed while living in London to create graham cracker crusts.  There were Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, Branston pickle, and marmite, the disgusting smear that British friends insisted was a nutritious and delicious part of any breakfast.  There was an entire section of shelving devoted to Sharwood’s and Patak’s seasonings in all their korma and curried splendor.  In Britain, I remembered, Indian food was its own food group. 

cereals at French supermarket
Cheerios and All Bran were nowhere to be found among these chocolatey boxes at a French supermarket . . . 

I wandered and gawked before slipping into Geoffrey’s cereal section.  I had a reason to be there:  My short list contained two breakfast cereals.  Having already searched the French supermarkets, my eyes at last fixed on a coveted word:  Cheerios.  Lolo had insisted Miel Pops (Honey Pops) were an impossible substitute, so a box of Honey Cheerios slid into my basket.

cereal boxes
. . . but Geoffrey’s offered heartier options.

But where was the All Bran? Having once reigned in French supermarkets as the only serious breakfast cereal not packed with a burst of chocolate in every bite, All Bran had disappeared altogether from Antibes’ shelves.  Even Geoffrey’s stock was depleted – but the British supermarket did carry other options.  I popped a box of bran flakes into my basket beside the Cheerios.  

In the next aisle I stumbled on mac ‘n’ cheese.  I couldn’t help but browse.  Years ago at Geoffrey’s, Kraft dinner had cost nearly 10 euros a box – over 10-times the price back home.  Now a couple more reasonable varieties occupied the store’s shelves, but again I passed.  I was nothing if I wasn’t disciplined.  Mac ‘n’ cheese was not on my list.  

tea shelves
No one does tea like the Brits.

Pivoting, my ardour returned.  No one did tea like the Brits, and Geoffrey’s boasted a wall of the stuff.  I plucked an 80-pack of PG Tips’ perfect pyramid bags from the collection and placed it in my basket.

It was then that I spotted the quintessence, the absolutely pinnacle, of British foods.  Beside Geoffrey’s teas purred an illuminated refrigerator case. Crowning the long unit in artistic lines and pyramids were tin cans bearing the ubiquitous turquoise label.  Heinz baked beans.  I dallied, my hand reaching upward – until I remembered I’d be the only one in my house to eat them.  No one wanted to live with someone who had just eaten a whole can of Heinz baked beans.

crisp shelves
Prawn cocktail flavour, anyone?

I drifted back to the front of the store, passing bins of potato chips (or crisps, as they surely were known here).  Regular salted and peri-peri and vegetarian chili -flavoured.  Twiglets, Quavers, bacon rashers, and prawn cocktail Skips.

Are we what we eat? The phrase of an advertising campaign from my youth flitted into my head as I approached the woman at the till.  Her antipodean accent now revealing itself, she buzzed someone in back about my Amazon delivery and rang up my findings. 

boxes
I was a little too happy with my finds.

I cradled the three prized boxes in my arms while waiting beside the till for my music stand.  Was I bran flakes?  It was the oddest-sounding idea, but I’d been missing bran flakes from my French diet.  Who in the world didn’t crave a daily menu of French foods?  I was living in the land of the zestiest tomatoes and sweetest strawberries, the flakiest croissants and most exquisite and beautiful cuisine, and I missed bran flakes.  I was such a misfit.

Or was I?  I thought of a French friend in Canada who delighted in occasional parcels from home that contained French cheeses and saucissons (the dried sausages you find in French markets).  

Was I bran flakes?  Or maybe PG Tips?  Was my French friend cheese and sausage?  Were my linguistic equivalents in the Côte d’Azur – those customers strolling the aisles alongside me or crowding the chairs next door at Le Blue Lady pub – were they marmite and rashers and Quavers?

As I signed for my Amazon box, Geoffrey’s glass door swung open.  A young man walked in.  He wore navy shorts and a white, collared t-shirt, and with his spiky blond hair I knew he was a yachtie – a member of some yacht’s crew who spoke a brand of fluent English.  

The yachtie didn’t say “bonjour” or “hello” to the woman at the till.  He didn’t offer a well-mannered nod in recognition of the governing language or culture.  He didn’t pause or even slow his gait as an indication of inner conflict over visiting Geoffrey’s of London.

“Do you have any Cheerios?” he asked the attendant.  She directed him toward the correct aisle.  

I glanced automatically at the Honey Cheerios coddled in my arms.  Maybe, in a way far less subtle than I’d both realized and hoped, I was what I ate. 

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17 thoughts on “Geoffrey’s of Antibes: You are what you eat?

  1. Great blog, Jemma, and very thought provoking. Like you, I’ve thought about the desire to shop for ‘food from home’, both when I lived in South Africa and now, back in the UK: there is now a wide range of SA stores supplying biltong and wors (but alas not Pecks’s Anchovette, illegal here and my biggest craving).

    I’ve never felt guilty in occasional indulgence. More than 99% of my food consumption is always local, and the odd rare treat does no harm.

    Btw, you underrate Marmite. It’s made from the waste product of brewing, so it must be good for you 🙂

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer.

    John

  2. This article reminds me of filling my suitcase with large boxes of cereal over thirty years ago when I traveled to Israel to visit my daughter who was in school there for one year There was very little food imports at the time and my daughter yearned for her American box of cereal.
    Thank you for bring back memories
    Laura

  3. Loved this shopping trip…thanks for sharing so vividly:) Your excitement of foods reminded me of my then 16yr /10 yr old children’s summer shopping trip the day after we landed from living one year in Shanghai. (I would buy very limited international foods)…mind you, they were a little more exuberant as they literally skipped down the aisles and hugged some of the products. Bick’s pickles, Annie’s Mac and Cheese, Cheemo’s perogies. Oh my! Is that who we are? Lol…that’s ok:) Enjoy your indulgences!!

  4. Lol. What? No Lucky Charms??!!! Pop Tarts?! American College Fare coming our way soon! 😘 Great blog as always!

  5. Lovely blog. Reminds me of the hilarity of the ‘British Section’ of the local Super U.

    Though I did let out a small ‘scare bleu’ at the thought of anyone choosing PG Tips over Yorkshire Tea – which I spied on the bottom shelf.

  6. Ahhhh!! Once again, you’ve identified and masterfully exposed yet another ‘French Lesson’, and one that clearly resonates with a broad swath of your readership, me included!! Flashbacks of standing in front of ‘The Real McCoy’, rue de Grenelle in Paris as a student in the late 70s, pockebook too light and temperament to proud to go in!

  7. Thanks Jemma for the delicious read before we walk down to the pier for a bowl of homemade chowder…easy to eat local on the Cape.:) xo

  8. Hi Jemma! Ct here! Great post! Just FYI, for next time, I get Honey Nut Cherrios at the Geant Casino in Cagnes sur Mer! Hope you are having a GREAT summer. Sorry we are missing each other again.

  9. A very thoughtful and entertaining reflection Jemma. I am off camping in the Yukon for 11 days and will no doubt be eating freeze-dried food….I hope I am not what I eat on this occasion. Cheerio(s) for now.

  10. Love this!

    For years when I was little, my grandmother would secretly export suitcases of these little tiny yellow soup croutons made from flour and palm oil from Israel (because my brother and I refused to eat soup without them) along with our favourite Israeli chocolates.

    And then a few years ago I had to bring my old university housemate several containers of Magic Baking Power (the kind that comes in the yellow and brown round containers) to Switzerland so she can make her daughters’ birthday cakes like the kind her mother used to make.

    I think there simply is no place like home. 🙂

    1. Merci for sharing, Inbal! I’d never appreciated that Toronto’s Magic Baking Powder was special in some way, but with a name like that…

  11. Your charming account of your special food shopping experience reminded me of similar excursions of many years ago — riding the streetcar along Clark Street from Rogers Park to the Swedish delis and bakeries around Foster Avenue to buy treats from our “home away from home”. And after school those of us who had five cents would buy a dill pickle from the brine barrel at Ashkenaz on Morse Avenue and climb up on the embankment to munch on them as the “EL” trains roared by just above us. Perhaps we are what we eat at various times in our lives — I was a pickle then, and now fear that I am turning into a Door County coffeecake.(or possibly a fish.)

    1. I guess we are what we eat! Thirty years later, I still crave for tastes from my home country. Luckily, there’s plenty of quality Polish food to choose from just within twenty minutes drive to Roncesvalles Street in western Toronto.

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