Where does Gâteau Battu come from?
It’s from Picardy, a province in extreme northern France. Picardy is notable for several things including red brick houses, stunning Gothic cathedrals and excellent beer. I find it interesting first and foremost because it was the region where Napoleon first introduced the sugar beet.
Not many people think of Napoleon as a food (and food science) innovator, but he had to be — he had big armies to feed. Napoleon is mostly remembered as a brilliant military strategist and political leader, and he was certainly all that. What’s less well remembered is that he was the inventor of war on a societal level. Prior to Napoleon’s arrival on the European stage, war was mostly conducted by armies of professional soldiers whose loyalty was available to the highest bidder. Maybe they were from the country they were fighting for, maybe not. The cash was the main thing. Remember how the Hessians, German-speaking regiments that fought for the British crown, were one of the great terrors of the colonies during the American revolutionary war.
Napoleon was the first European leader to do away with the mercenary tradition and introduce a system of national conscription, i.e. a draft. This allowed him to raise armies of staggering size. Whereas a huge army in 1750 had 150,000 men in it, Napoleon’s army had ten times that many. But the logistical challenages of maintaining such an army in the field were huge. Napoleon famously observed that an army marches on its stomach. Just imagine the size stomach an army of 1.5 million has. Which is why Napoleon took such an interest in food, especially preserved food. No surprise then that it was Napoleon who offered the cash prize that inspired Nicholas Appert to invent canning.
Why was Napoleon interested in sugar? For its preservative properties of course. In his day, beet-derived sugar was a relatively new thing. But it didn’t take Napoleon long to realize its potential, especially after the British deprived him of his overseas supply of Caribbean cane sugar. Picardy is a region of vast plains, perfectly suited to sugar beet cultivation. To this day sugar beets are one of the region’s biggest cash crops. Think it’s a coincidence that Gâteau battu is almost identical to classic northern French brioche — save for the addition of sugar? It is not, and we have Napoleon to thank.